Firefighters struggle against blaze in Moscow television tower

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The Independent Online

Firefighters struggled for a second day Monday to extinguish a fire that gutted Moscow's giant television tower, as officials said there was little chance that people trapped in an lift could be saved.

Firefighters struggled for a second day Monday to extinguish a fire that gutted Moscow's giant television tower, as officials said there was little chance that people trapped in an lift could be saved.

Brown plumes of smoke billowed from the 540-meter (1,771-foot) Ostankino Tower on Monday morning, spreading out across northern Moscow as people watched from the streets below. But the smoke disappeared by mid-afternoon and Vyacheslav Mulishkin, first deputy director of the Russian Fire Service, said that firefighters had gotten the blaze under control.

He said that temporary firewalls of asbestos placed 70 meters (231 feet) up the tower had stopped the fire from spreading. But he said bundles of steel support cables running up the middle of the tower had been damaged, possibly threatening the structure.

"The cables are weakened, but have not broken," he said.

Automatic firefighting systems within the tower appeared to have failed or had run out of fire-suppressing foam, officials said. Firefighters wearing heavy rubber coats and breathing apparatuses had to climb hundreds of stairs, carrying heavy metal fire extinguishers and other equipment to battle the blaze.

Mulishkin said two civilians and a firefighter were trapped in a lift high in the tower. Earlier Monday, the Emergency Situations Ministry said that there were four trapped people in the lift, while Russian news agencies said there were only two.

The lift was too high for rescuers to reach, and the people inside may have been overcome by smoke.

The fire, which broke out high on the tower's upper spire Sunday afternoon, cut broadcasts for most major television stations in Moscow, though channels were still able to transmit nationally. The tower is the world's second-tallest freestanding structure.

More than 300 firefighters and other emergency workers were called in to battle the blaze, along with fire trucks and other equipment. A helicopter circled close to the tower, apparently checking for damage.

It was the latest in a series of disasters, including gas explosions, industrial accidents and breakdowns in the power grid, which have underscored the weakened state of Russia's infrastructure due to lack of money and poor maintenance.

"This emergency highlights what condition vital facilities, as well as the entire nation, are in," President Vladimir Putin said at a Cabinet meeting. "Only economic development will allow us to avoid such calamities in the future."

Responding to fears that the tower could collapse, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said "a large danger arises from the physical condition of the concrete parts of the tower." But he said earlier that the risk of collapse "practically does not exist."

A Moscow city surveyor on the scene, Vladimir Aleksin, said the tower's upper spire had tilted slightly, and that the tip of the structure was off-center by about two meters.

The fire started after a short-circuit in wiring belonging to a paging company. Visitors were quickly evacuated from the tower's restaurant and observation deck, which were engulfed several hours later as the fire moved down the structure.

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said authorities considered it unlikely that the fire was set intentionally in the tower, which has become increasingly packed with equipment in recent years.

Prosecutors opened an investigation Monday into whether criminal negligence was responsible for the fire, the Interfax news agency reported.

Media Minister Mikhail Lesin said it would take two or three days to restore television broadcasts to Moscow, while months would be needed to renovate the tower completely, Radio Mayak reported Monday.

Law enforcement agencies and emergency services also have circuitry in the tower, news reports said, but it wasn't clear whether that equipment was damaged.

The Ostankino tower was erected in 1967, and like many projects of the time, played its own small role in the Soviet-U.S. rivalry. It surpassed the Empire State Building as the world's tallest structure when it was built, and held the title until 1975 when it was surpassed by the CN tower in Toronto.