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April 11, 2003

28 children perish in deaf , mute school fire

From: Times of Oman, Oman - Apr 11, 2003

MAKHACHKALA (Russia) - At least 28 children died when a fire raged through a boarding school for deaf, mutes in southern Russia in the early hours of yesterday, in the second deadly school blaze in a week.

The local Health Ministry said 23 of the 28 charred bodies of the boys who died in the fire in Makhachkala, capital of the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, had been identified, and were taken away by their parents for burial, Itar-Tass reported.

The victims were all boys aged between eight and 14.

Another four children died later in hospital from carbon monoxide poisoning, teacher Valentina Gadzhiyeva said, citing medical sources, although the Russian Emergencies Ministry in Moscow could not confirm the higher death toll.

A ministry spokesman said nearly 140 children had been rushed to hospital after the fire suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning and burns, 22 of whom were in intensive care.

President Vladimir Putin ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to take personal charge of the response to the tragedy, but a senior lawmaker blasted inadequate fire safety at the country's educational establishments.

"We practically have fires in schools every day in which our children are dying," said Valentina Ivanova, deputy head of the State Duma or lower house of parliament's committee for local government.

"We want the education minister and general prosecutor to look into the situation in these boarding schools. We must do something about the schools so that this does not happen again," she told parliament.

The tragedy is the second deadly fire in a Russian school this week, after 21 children died in a blaze that destroyed a school in eastern Siberia on Monday.

Deputy prosecutor-general Sergei Fridinsky flew to Dagestan to open a criminal inquiry into the incident, media reports said.

The rescue efforts by firefighters and ambulance teams also came under blistering criticism from local residents, who said they had to take matters into their own hands.

Ramazan Kurbanov, who was among some 50 to 60 neighbours who came to help and rescue children, said that the first fire engine that arrived had no water.

Then, the fire crews' ladders couldn't reach the second floor, which meant people living nearby had to bring their own ladders, and of the first four ambulances that came, only one had oxygen supplies.

The fire, apparently caused by an electrical short circuit, broke out at 2:19am in a sports hall adjoining the two-storey school building.

No one noticed the fire for some time because everyone was asleep, but it spread through the corridor on the ground floor and went up to the first floor, where all the dormitories were located.

Boarding school employees first tried to douse the flames on their own, and only later called the fire brigade, Channel One television quoted witnesses as saying. The fire was finally extinguished more than three hours later.

The children, all of them deaf, did not hear as the fire broke out and many had to be woken up to be evacuated.

"They got a few dozen children out and went back in. Then someone realised that since they are deaf mute and can't shout, we have to check under the beds.

"Many children were cowering under their beds from fright. As it was dark, they couldn't see them. No one had flashlights to begin with. Then they started searching for them under the beds and rescued many this way," Kurbanov said. - AFP

© 2003 Times of Oman