Vladivostok office fire kills nine

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The Independent Online

A fire broke out in an office building in the Russian Pacific coast city of Vladivostok today, killing nine people and injuring at least 15 others as trapped victims jumped from windows to escape the smoke and flames.

Officials said that some stairwells in the building were blocked by gates, hampering rescue efforts, and witnesses said some of the victims - mostly young women - had jumped from upper floors of the nine-storey building.

The fire killed nine people - six who died at the scene, including one whose body was found hours after the blaze - and three who died in hospital, said Yulia Kozitskaya, a spokeswoman for the regional branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry. She said 15 others remained in hospital.

Outside the building, an elderly witness said he saw three young women jump from windows. "They waited until the very last moment," he said.

Another man said five women jumped to their deaths, a figure also reported by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

The chief regional prosecutor, Alexander Anikin, said that "some of the stairwells were barred" by gates that apparently prevented victims from escaping from flames and smoke choking upper floors of the nine-storey building.

According to Kozitskaya, the fire broke out on the seventh floor, which Russian media and witnesses said was occupied by offices of the state-run bank Sberbank, and that the floors above were also affected.

In the wake of the blaze, criminal cases were opened on suspicion of fire safety violations and lethal negligence, ITAR-Tass quoted Irina Nomokonova, a senior aide to Anikin, as saying.

"There was no means of rescuing people - no ropes, no emergency exits," Alexander Babykin, an onlooker identified as a rescue worker, told NTV. "All this was ignored."

Firefighters had trouble bringing equipment close to the building because a commercial parking lot set up outside the structure was in violation of fire safety regulations, RIA-Novosti reported, citing an unnamed emergency official in the region 5,750 miles east of Moscow.

Investigators were looking into the cause of the blaze, which broke out shortly after noon (0200GMT). Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman said hours later that it had been contained, and televised footage indicated it was extinguished.

Russia's rate of fire deaths is roughly 10 times the rate in the United States, in part because of the lax enforcement of regulations. President Vladimir Putin said last month that fire-safety oversight bodies must do a better job.