The fire quickly engulfed most of the dilapidated building housing students of the Patrice Lumumba Friendship of Peoples University, Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said. The building served as a quarantine facility for foreign students who had just arrived in Russia and were to undergo medical checks before starting their studies.
"It was like a horrible nightmare," Abdallah Bong, a student from Chad who witnessed the fire, said as he looked at the gutted carcass of the building. "We saw them crying for help and jumping out of the windows, and we could do nothing to save them."
Pavel Klimovsky, a Moscow police spokesman, said 28 bodies were recovered inside the building, which housed 272 students, three were found outside and one person died in an ambulance. Fifty of the injured were in serious condition, he said in a telephone interview.
Bong and other eyewitnesses said that dozens of fire engines were slow to start action as they jammed into a narrow access road blocked by parked cars, and they couldn't prevent the fire from almost completely ravaging the building.
The flames roared for more than three hours, gutting most of the dormitory above the ground floor, and smoke poured from windows as a wet snow fell in the pre-dawn darkness. After the fire was put out, the building's concrete walls were streaked with dark black soot, and nearby trees were caked with ice that had formed from water used to extinguish the blaze.
"A friend of mine who arrived just a few days ago broke his leg when he jumped out the window, and I don't know what happened to another friend," Nafafe Tengna, a third-year journalism student from Guinea, said as he waited for the authorities to distribute the list of victims.
He said that the firefighters and emergency workers were slow to mount a rescue effort.
"Students had to do it all themselves, holding mattresses for those who were jumping out," he said. Later, some half-naked victims suffered frostbite as ambulances were slow to arrive.
Moscow fire safety department spokesman Yevgeny Bobylyov insisted that the firemen arrived on time and did their job well.
Adam Rosales, a 22-year old Peruvian student, shuddered as he stood looking at the blackened wreckage.
"A man from Ecuador shattered himself and died when he jumped out of the fifth floor," he said. "But one Brazilian who jumped out only broke his arm."
Rimma Maslova, the chief doctor at a nearby hospital where most of the victims were being treated, said that many had suffered fractures and one had a grave spine injury.
Students said the dead and injured included citizens of China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Tahiti, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Angola, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Kazakhstan, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Peru and Malaysia.
A preliminary investigation pointed to an electrical problem, Deputy Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told Russian President Vladimir Putin, who inquired about the fire during a Cabinet session. Some bystanders said the fire could have been sparked by electric heaters, which students use to get warm.
The university, named after a Congolese anti-colonial leader and prime minister who was assassinated, was founded by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 to offer a strict Marxist curriculum to students from developing nations.
It served as a showcase of Soviet patronage of the Third World, receiving generous state subsidies, but declined after the 1991 Soviet collapse as government funding dried up.
A 22-year old student from Mauritius, who identified himself only by his first name, Vashish, said that the university charges high prices for "miserable" lodging: US$300 a month for each student. He and other students said one of the dormitory's two stairways was permanently locked, making an emergency exit more difficult.
With stipends for foreign students shrinking to almost nothing, many trade goods to make money, and dormitories — already cramped — are often packed with bags and bundles.
Russia has a high rate of fire deaths, 18,000 a year. That is nearly five times the number of fire deaths in the United States, which has twice the population. The contrast is even starker with the United Kingdom, where there are 600 fire deaths a year, or one per 100,000 people — compared to 12.5 per 100,000 in Russia.
Experts say fire fatalities have skyrocketed since the end of the Soviet Union, in part because of lower public vigilance and a disregard for safety standards. The age of Russia's buildings also plays a role: Many older buildings have wood partitions between the floors that help fires spread rapidly.