A fire broke out in a women's ward of a Moscow drug treatment hospital early today, killing 45 women who found themselves trapped between the fire and a locked gate, officials said.
It was the deadliest fire in the Russian capital in three years.
Russia's chief fire inspector, Yuri Nenashev, said he was "90 percent certain" that the fire was caused by arson. But Moscow city prosecutor Yuri Syomin said investigators were also looking into other possibilities.
The fire erupted in a wooden cabinet in a kitchen at one end of a corridor on the hospital's second floor — a factor that led to suspicions of arson. The only other exit, at the other end, was blocked by a locked gate, Nenashev said. The barred windows were shut with locks that hospital personnel could not open.
All 45 women were dead by the time firefighters arrived, said Alexander Chupriyanov, the deputy emergency situations minister.
"Judging by the placement of the bodies, they really tried to get out," he said.
Moscow fire department spokesman Yevgeny Bobylyov said that investigators were still working at the site of Hospital No. 17 in southern Moscow but that it was already clear that the first call to the fire department — around 1.30am had come very late.
"Secondly, the hospital personnel worked very badly, they did not take steps to evacuate people in the early stages of the fire," he said.
160 people were evacuated from the five-story building, and 10 people were hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning, Bobylyov said. Firefighters put out the fire within an hour of the first call for help, he said.
Most victims died of asphyxiation, Bobylyov said; some died of burns, Syomin said. Russian media reported that two hospital staff members were among the dead.
The ITAR-Tass news agency said that the area of the fire was comparatively small, some 100 square metres, but that the heavy concentration of smoke killed people. Ekho Moskvy radio said burning plastic wall coverings worsened the thick, toxic smoke.
The fire might have started in a pile of discarded materials, Syomin said.
A few ambulances were lined up outside the hospital, a nondescript, tan brick building in a residential neighbourhood in southern Moscow. Reporters were kept well away from the building, set deep in a courtyard, but no obvious signs of fire or smoke damage were visible on the facade.
A van from the city's psychological health service pulled up outside the hospital and a few people went inside, presumably to provide counselling for relatives of victims. Relatives were brought into the staff entrance to the hospital, well away from reporters. The government also set up a telephone hot line for relatives.
Nenashev said fire inspectors had visited the hospital twice, in February and March, and had recommended the temporary closure of the facility after the second visit because of fire safety violations.
Russia records about 18,000 fire deaths a year — roughly 10 times the rate in the United States and 12.5 times higher than in Britain. Experts say fire fatalities have skyrocketed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in part because of lower public vigilance and a disregard for safety standards.