A fire at a psychiatric hospital outside Moscow killed 38 people early this morning, many of them patients who burned to death while under heavy sedation.
It is the latest reminder of Russia’s appalling fire safety record, which has seen numerous incidents of mass fatalities in hospitals, nightclubs and dormitories in recent years.
The fire broke out around 1.30am at Psychiatric Clinic Number 14, in Ramenskiy, about 85 miles from Moscow. A 26-year-old patient who managed to escape the blaze told investigators that it began when one of the patients, a recovering drug addict, dropped a cigarette butt. Although smoking was forbidden at the institution the patient said the recovering drug addict frequently ignored the ban.
The collection of one-storey buildings, partly constructed of wood, quickly caught fire. Investigators have not confirmed the story about the smoker and are also looking into other potential causes including arson and an electrical fault. But they say they believe the initial source of the fire was a sofa in the common room.
A 40-year-old nurse who escaped the fire, saving one patient, said the flames had spread so quickly that she was not able to save others. Only three people who were in the hospital at the time managed to escape, while 36 patients and two staff perished.
The hospital housed patients described by a doctor as “a very tough group of people”, including those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Almost all of them were under heavy sedation and probably did not wake up as the flames spread.
Andrei Vorobyov, the acting governor of the Moscow region, said: “The alarm went off and a nurse began to react, but despite this only two other people were able to get out.”
He added that the nearest fire station was more than 40 miles away, across a river, and that the ferry service had been suspended due to flooding, meaning there was no way for the firefighters to reach the hospital. Yesterday Moscow authorities ordered safety checks on all schools and hospitals in the region.
Russia has a terrible fire safety record, and it is estimated that 12,000 people die in fires each year. In 2009 more than 100 people were killed when an indoor fireworks display set fire to a nightclub in the city of Perm. There was a dash for the doors but many were trapped inside and burned or asphyxiated by the rapidly spreading smoke. The same year, 23 people died at an old people’s home in the northern region of Komi, while in 2007 a blaze at a similar institution in Krasnodar killed 63.
Mr Vorobyov said the families of the victims would be paid compensation of 500,000 roubles (£10,000), while survivors would receive 150,000 roubles.