Estonia mourns orphanage fire dead

Estonia began a day of mourning today for 10 disabled children who perished when a fire raged through their orphanage.

Thirty-seven children and nine adults were inside the wooden building in the coastal town of Haapsalu when the fire started at 2.30pm yesterday, said Viktor Saaremets, a spokesman for the Western Estonia Rescue Services Centre.

"By the time rescue workers and firefighters arrived at the scene three or four minutes later the building was completely in flames," he said.

Ten children were killed and one adult was injured, Mr Saaremets said. Most of the victims were wheelchair-bound and unable to escape the rapidly spreading fire, he said.

The others were evacuated to a nearby building and were not hurt.

Estonian newspaper Postimees showed pictures on its website of flames tearing into a one-storey wooden building. Victims were carried out of a window as thick smoke billowed from the roof.

The Estonian government met for an emergency meeting after the blaze and declared today a nationwide day of mourning.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed his condolences.

"The tragic accident in the Haapsalu orphanage shocked the whole of Estonia today," he said.

The cause of the fire was not immediately clear.

"Fire safety inspectors went there in January and found that the building met all the necessary criteria," Mr Saaremets said.

The Haapsalu orphanage was opened as a home for disabled children in 1950, when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, according to its website. In 1996 it moved into the current building, which was funded by the Estonian government as well as Swedish, Finnish and US donors.

Lars Nexe, a Swedish philanthropist who led the project, said the construction material was shipped from Sweden and that the building met Swedish safety standards.

He said the home admitted disabled children and teenagers from all over Estonia, nearly all of them orphans.

"The section that burned down completely was the section with the most severely-handicapped children," he said.



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