Fire kills at least 45 women in locked hospital

Inspectors had warned that Moscow rehabilitation clinic was unsafe
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Forty-five women died early yesterday as fire tore through a Moscow drugs rehabilitation clinic, only a few months after fire inspectors had warned the building was unsafe and should be shut down.

The victims, including two staff, found themselves trapped between the flames and a metal gate, which was kept locked to stop the clinic's alcohol and substance-abusing patients leaving the premises. Officials said they were "90 per cent certain" that the fire, the deadliest in the Russian capital in the past three years, was arson.

Sources close to the investigation raised the possibility that one of Hospital Number 17's drug-addicted patients might have started the fire "as revenge" for being refused medication or drugs. All of the victims were dead before the fire service arrived. Twelve other people were being treated for burns and smoke inhalation in hospital.

Weeping relatives of the dead stood outside the building yesterday as ambulances hurried to and fro. On the gutted second floor of the five-storey clinic, some windows had been smashed, but the white grilles over them were intact.

A hospital psychologist, Olga Rudakova, told NTV television that the dead were mostly women under 35, addicts infected with HIV and many with psychological disorders. "The lights went out and panic started," she said. "Everyone could have left; there were no patients that could not walk."

The fire broke out in a cupboard in a kitchen in the early hours, blocking one exit, while the only other way out was barred by the locked gate. The windows were not only barred but also padlocked shut.

The women were overcome by toxic fumes, and most of them died from asphyxiation. "Judging by the placement of the bodies, they really tried to get out," said Alexander Chupriyan, a deputy minister responsible for emergencies.

Fire inspectors visited Hospital Number 17 in February and March, and ruled it unsafe. They recommended it be shut down temporarily, but their request was rejected by a Moscow court which allowed the hospital to get off with a verbal warning.

Yevgeny Bobylov, a spokesman for Moscow's emergencies ministry, said considerable blame is attached to the clinic's staff. "They informed fire services 30 minutes too late," he said. "That is why dense smoke spread into 100 square metres, stifling people. They did not use keys to open grilles for evacuation. As a result, people were caught in a trap."

It was also claimed that staff had fled the building when the fire alarm sounded, leaving the patients to fend for themselves. "The personnel did not undertake any rescue measures," Mr Chupriyan said. "When they discovered the fire, they simply left the building." Smoke from the fire quickly became toxic, because the hospital's walls had recently been covered in cheap plastic during a renovation.

Several fatal fires have occurred at secure hospitals in Russia where drug addicts or mentally ill people are treated. They are often in old, neglected buildings. A year ago, seven people died when a fire broke out in the night at a hospital near Moscow treating people for nervous disorders. In 1999, a fire at a hospital near St Petersburg for people with mental illnesses killed 19 people.