Blaze at Russia psychiatric hospital kills 38

Thirty-eight people, mostly psychiatric patients, were killed Friday in a fire that ravaged a hospital in the Moscow region, with the victims engulfed by flames as they slept behind barred windows.

A view of the burned psychiatric hospital in the small town of Ramensky around 40 kilometres (25 miles) outside Moscow, on April 26, 2013. Thirty-eight people, mostly psychiatric patients, were killed in a fire that ravaged a hospital in the Moscow region, with the victims engulfed by flames as they slept behind barred windows.

The deadly night-time blaze raised new questions about security standards at Russia's medical institutions, in particular at psychiatric hospitals, after a string of fires in the last years.

The fire spread rapidly throughout the wood-and-brick hospital wing in the small town of Ramensky around 100 kilometres (62 miles) outside Moscow as the patients slept heavily after reportedly being given sleeping pills.

Officials said the residents of the wing of Hospital No. 14 apparently died in their sleep from smoke inhalation as the fire spread rapidly through the building dating back to 1940, although three managed to escape in the early stages of the inferno.

"As a result of the fire, 38 people died, three escaped -- one nurse and two patients," the health ministry said in a statement.

The emergency situations ministry listed those believed to have died as two female orderlies and 36 patients.

Acting Moscow region governor Andrei Vorobyov told Rossiya 24 television that "the investigation must decide whether the (window) bars were the reason or not" for why so few were able to flee to safety.

The patients, who may have been sedated, apparently slept through smoke alarms, although the nurse who escaped did wake up and rescued two patients despite heavy smoke.

The Investigative Committee, which probes serious crime, said experts would examine "whether the victims' blood contained any substances that affected their state and ability to escape from the burning building independently."

"From the way the bodies were lying, we can deduce that at the moment the fire broke out, the patients were sleeping," the spokeswoman for regional investigators, Irina Gumyonnaya, said at the scene.

"One of the questions is why they did not hear the smoke alarms."

She revealed that a surviving patient told investigators that he and another patient had woken and tried to fight the fire.

"One of the patients interviewed said he managed to leave the room with one of his room mates and they took measures to extinguish the fire, throwing water at it.

"But these measures had no effect, which is why the patient who was interviewed left the building. Unfortunately the second patient did not make it."

The inaccessible location of the clinic and its distance from the nearest fire station also came under scrutiny.

The ministry said the first report of the fire was at 2:00 am (2200 GMT) and the blaze was under control two hours later. However it took the fire services over an hour to reach the site, instead of the standard 20 minutes.

The delay was caused because a ferry crossing over the nearby canal was not working, a spokesman for the emergency situations ministry told the Interfax news agency.

The Investigative Committee said in a statement it had opened a criminal probe into a failure to observe fire security regulations, causing multiple deaths.

They were considering a short circuit or the dangerous handling of fire as possible causes. The investigators said the fire was believed to have started on a recreation room sofa.

One of the two patients to survive gave evidence that a recently admitted drug addict was going through withdrawal and constantly breaching a smoking ban, investigators said.

"I think the fire started because one of the patients often used to enjoy cigarettes," surviving patient Dmitry Gladkikh told the Life News website.

According to the list released by the emergency situations ministry, the ages of the victims varied widely with several patients in their 70s but others only in their 20s.

The youngest victim appeared to be a female patient named Lyubov born in 1993.

The institution's chief doctor, who was not named by Russian media, described the patients as a "very tough group of people -- psychiatric patients with chronic illnesses and frequent attacks" who suffered from alcohol and drug addiction.

The fire was the latest tragedy to hit a medical institution in Russia, which still suffers from outdated Soviet-era infrastructure and lax security procedures.

In 2006, a fire in a Moscow drug rehabilitation clinic killed 45 women, many of whom were trapped by metal bars on the windows that staff could not open.

Russian Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova ordered a check of all the country's psychiatric hospitals by the end of next month.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency