Ten children killed as fire sweeps through orphanage

Ten disabled children died after a fire raced through an orphanage in western Estonia yesterday.

Most of the victims were wheelchair-bound and unable to escape the rapidly spreading fire. Victims were carried out through a window as thick smoke billowed from the roof. Other people inside were evacuated to a nearby building.

There were 37 children and nine adults in the wooden building when the fire started at 2.30pm in the coastal town of Haapsalu.

Viktor Saaremets, a spokesman for the Western Estonia Rescue Services Centre, said: "By the time rescue workers and firefighters arrived at the scene three or four minutes later the building was completely in flames." The cause of the fire was not immediately clear, though Mr Saaremets said fire safety inspectors visited the orphanage in January and found that the building met all the necessary criteria.

The Estonian government met for an emergency meeting after the blaze and has declared a nationwide day of mourning for today. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed his condolences in a brief statement: "The tragic accident in the Haapsalu orphanage shocked the whole of Estonia today."

The orphanage admits disabled children and teenagers from all over Estonia. It was opened as a home for disabled children in 1950, when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. In 1996 it moved into the current building, which was funded by the Estonian government and Swedish, Finnish and American 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.

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