Fire in 1,800ft TV tower adds to Russians' feeling of doom

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Only a week after hope was abandoned of saving the crew of the Kursk submarine, Russians suffered another blow as they watched the Ostankino television tower, one of the symbols of their capital, go up in flames.

Only a week after hope was abandoned of saving the crew of the Kursk submarine, Russians suffered another blow as they watched the Ostankino television tower, one of the symbols of their capital, go up in flames.

"Our country seems to be cursed. It is just a giant disaster zone," Marina, an office worker, said as she listened to a radio bulletin on the fire,which began on Sunday. The 1,771-foot Ostankino tower is the world's second-tallest freestanding structure.

Firefighters put out the blaze yesterday after more than a day battling smoke and heat hundreds of feet above ground. The bodies of a firefighter and a lift operator were found in an elevator shaft, a spokesman for the Moscow Emergency Situations Ministry said. They were two of the three people believed to have been trapped when a lift got stuck high up in the tower in the fire's early phase. There was no immediate word on the other person.

Officials said that automatic firefighting systems in the tower appeared to have failed or had run out of fire-suppressing foam.

All the main television channels went off the air when the fire began and Russians had to rely for news on pop radio stations. The first channel to shut down on Sunday was the independent NTV. Until it became clear that fire was to blame, some people wondered whether President Vladimir Putin had pulled the plug on the station that led the criticism of him during the slow and unsuccessful operation to rescue the 118 Kursk submariners.

But yesterday Mr Putin took an active interest in the work of the emergency services and met the Information Minister, Mikhail Lesin, to discuss how the media could be helped to resume broadcasting.

He seemed to share ordinary Russians' view of their crumbling country. "This latest accident shows the shape of our vital installations and the overall state of the country," he said. "We should not fail to see major problems in the country behind this accident and we should not forget the economy. Whether or not such accidents happen again will depend on how we work in this vital direction."

A short circuit is believed to have caused the fire. The authorities have opened an investigation into possible criminal negligence.

When it was built in 1967 the tower was the tallest in the world. Even after the CN tower in Toronto overtook it, Muscovites still loved it as a feat of Soviet engineering. It is estimated that repairs would cost $100m (£70m), which Russia can ill afford.

In theory, the fact that so much Russian technology is obsolete should enable it to make a clean sweep and leapfrog into the digital age. But the size of the country - it covers one-sixth of the world's surface and spans 11 time zones - and the scale of its problems are daunting. Almost everything is disintegrating, from the housing to hospitals and from power stations to airports.

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