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April 11, 2003

28 Dead After Fire In School For Deaf

From: St Petersburg Times, Russia - Apr 11, 2003

By Sergei Rasulov and Nabi Abdullaev

MAKHACHKALA, Dagestan - A fire roared through a boarding school for the deaf early Thursday, killing 28 young boys as they slept, unable to hear calls of alarm.

Firefighters and police officers were able to save 131 of their schoolmates, but 106 of them remained hospitalized on Thursday suffering from burns and smoke inhalation, with 22 in intensive-care wards, local emergency officials said.

The tragedy occurred just three days after a fire at a rural Siberian school took the lives of 22 children, and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on Thursday ordered an urgent assessment of fire safety in all Russian schools.

Dagestani investigators said they suspected the fire was caused by a short circuit, the same explanation offered by those investigating the fire in the Siberian republic of Sakha.

The latest fire began late Wednesday in the school's assembly hall, adjacent to the main two-story building of yellow limestone bricks, local firefighters said. At about 2 a.m. Thursday, perhaps smelling smoke, a staff member opened the door to the hall, creating a powerful backdraft. Flames surged into the main building and set ablaze the stairs leading to the dormitories on the second floor, the firefighters said.

Ramazan Kurbanov, who lives near the school, was among the first who came running.

"The corridor on the second floor was on fire and the only way to get the children out was through the windows," he said. "The fire crews that arrived on the spot had no ladders with them, and we, the neighbors, brought them ours."

The rescue operation was slowed as each child had to be awakened individually because they could not hear the alarms, witnesses said.

"When seemingly all the children had been rescued from several dormitories, someone shouted that some of them could be hiding under beds, and the firemen climbed into the windows again. Indeed, several scared kids were saved then from under the furniture," Kurbanov said.

Girls and boys slept in separate dormitories, explaining why the children who died were all boys, most of them among the youngest at the school, emergency officials said. The pupils ranged in age from 7 to 14.

It took three hours for 17 firefighting crews to put out the fire, which was fanned by high winds.

On Thursday morning, thin smoke still swirled from the debris on the school's second floor. Charred children's shoes and boots were scattered across the floor.

The ground floor, where the classrooms were located, looked almost intact except for the shattered windows.

Of the school's 220 students, only 159 were sleeping there the night of the fire, Dagestani officials said.

The children's parents rushed to the school Thursday morning. Women sobbed loudly on the street outside, but some of them calmed down when municipal officials standing near the scorched school told them that their children were alive. All the surviving children were taken to Makhachkala hospitals, and the officials had lists of who was where. Some of the children were released to their parents Thursday.

Kasyanov said Thursday that the fire in the Makhachkala school seems to be part of systemic problem.

He ordered the Education Ministry to check all Russian schools for fire safety and the conditions of their electrical systems. Earlier this week, the ministry told Izvestia that 700 schools had been damaged by fire in 2002.

According to Emergency Situations Ministry figures, 750 Russian children died in fires last year, not all in schools.

Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky traveled Thursday to Makhachkala to head the investigation.

President Vladimir Putin said the authorities will do everything in their power to help the families of the dead and injured children.

"These are our common children, this is our common tragedy," Putin said in remarks read by an anchor on Channel One television.

State Duma members stood in memory of the dead children Thursday.

"The Americans in these several days lost fewer people [in Iraq], than we did in two or three days when a total of 50 children died in fires," Deputy Valery Dorogin said, according to Interfax.

A day of mourning was declared in Dagestan on Friday, when the dead children will be buried, Interfax reported, citing the speaker of the republic's parliament, Mukhu Aliyev. Several bodies still have not been identified, he said.

© copyright The St. Petersburg Times 2003