A fire swept through a nursing home in southern Russia on Tuesday, killing 62 people — a toll that authorities said was inflated by safety violations, toxic materials, negligence and the long distance from the nearest firehouse.
A night watchman ignored two fire alarms before reporting the blaze, and it took firefighters nearly an hour to get from a larger town to the nursing home in the Azov Sea coast village of Kamyshevatskaya, where the fire station was closed last year, emergency officials said.
Many of the nursing home's elderly residents could not escape on their own, and some knocked on windows seeking aid, according to news reports and a local resident who said he helped evacuate people from the two-story brick building before firefighters arrived.
"I rushed here, saw the flames and started to help people get out from the second floor," Yevgeny Solomin told NTV.
"But what could we do?" he said. "Do you know how hard it is to get someone down a ladder from the second floor? If only firefighters had been here, they could have extinguished the flames a bit. But without them ... yes, it took them a long time to get here."
Russian television networks showed footage of the building's blackened exterior walls, charred wheelchairs and a first-floor room gutted and covered in ash.
In addition to the dead, 35 people were injured, regional emergency official Sergei Petrov said. There were 97 people in the building when the fire broke out, including four employees, he said. The Krasnodar region's acting governor, Murat Akhedzhak, said 30 people were hospitalized and that their lives were not in danger.
The fire occurred less than 24 hours after a methane gas explosion at a Siberian coal mine killed more than 100 people in Russia's deadliest mining disaster in a decade.
Firefighters were alerted to the blaze shortly after 1 a.m. and headed for the scene from Yeisk, a town on the other side of a peninsula, arriving nearly an hour later and extinguishing the fire by about 5 a.m., Petrov said. The fire station is 32 miles from the nursing home, said Sergei Kudinov, the head of the Emergency Situations Ministry's southern branch.
The fire was the latest in a number of deadly blazes at schools, dormitories, hospitals and other state-run facilities that have plagued Russia in recent years, underlining rampant violations of fire safety rules and official negligence.
In many cases, the victims have been vulnerable people such as children, the elderly or wards of the state. A fire at a Moscow drug treatment facility in December killed 45 women trapped by gates and barred windows, and a blaze a day later killed nine patients at a Siberian clinic for the mentally ill.
In addition, nursing home personnel were absent from their posts when the fire broke out, slowing efforts to find keys and open an emergency exit, she said. The staff inside the building when the fire broke out — three orderlies and a nurse — was not enough to quickly evacuate the elderly residents, Smolskaya said; NTV reported that the nurse was among the dead.
The Russian Prosecutor General's Office said that renovation work had been carried out in the building and that interior wall panels released toxic gases when they burned, filling the second story with smoke. The ITAR-Tass news agency, citing emergency officials, reported that most of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
"There was no panic," Solomin said on state-run Channel One television, but added that some residents knocked on the windows, which had to be smashed with axes.
Authorities were considering carelessness, a short circuit and arson as possible causes of the fire, Kudinov said. Petrov said a faulty electrical wire may have been the cause.
Russia records nearly 18,000 fire deaths a year, several times the per capita rate in the United States and other Western countries. Last year, an average of just under 600 fires were recorded daily, according to authorities, killing 17,650 people in the nation of 142 million — down nearly 7 percent from 2005 but still working out to almost 50 fire deaths every day.
In the past year, the emergencies ministry has published lists of dozens of buildings, including medical facilities and schools, where glaring fire safety violations were discovered. Many have been corrected, it says.
Emergency official Sergei Salov said on Channel One that an inspection of the nursing home in Kamyshevatskaya in early 2006 uncovered 36 fire safety violations, and that 30 of them had been corrected before a subsequent check. He did not detail the violations, but Channel One said the facility did not have enough fire extinguishers and gas masks.
The fire station in Kamyshevatskaya was closed late last year, state-run television channels reported, even though the village has a school and two kindergartens as well as the nursing home.
"The fire station was closed and has been plundered," local resident Pavel Babenko told Channel One. "Nobody cares about anything."