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April 11, 2003

Twenty-eight children killed in fire at school for deaf

From: The Scotsman, UK - Apr 11, 2003


FLAMES engulfed a boarding school for the deaf in Russia yesterday, killing 28 boys as the pupils cowered under furniture, unable to hear evacuation instructions.

A total of 106 students remained in hospital, including nine in serious condition, officials said.

Rescue efforts were hampered by the children's inability to hear alarms; school employees ran frantically from bed to bed to shake each child awake.

When firefighters arrived, they were at a loss to give children evacuation instructions and many children hid under furniture in fear, they said. "The children did not seem to realise what they were doing," a firefighter, Ruslan Chupanov, said.

Rescuers and staff at the 166-student school in the Dagestan region, about 1,000 miles south of Moscow, saved many children by throwing them from second-storey windows on to mattresses and bedding heaved out of the school, one teacher said.

The fire was heaviest in the wing where the youngest boys lived, and the dead were all boys aged 6 to 14. The Dagestan health ministry said the remains of 25 of the 28 killed were identified yesterday.

Distraught, sobbing parents and other relatives crowded outside the Makhachkala hospital and near the school, trying to find their children's names on hand-written lists.

Emergency officials said the fire, which broke out about 2am, might have been caused by a short circuit when electricity was restored to the building after a blackout. Zoya Darayeva, the principal, told Rossiya television that a night attendant had smelled smoke coming from a room, but the door was locked.

She then saw flames coming out of an outlet in a corridor, and thick smoke.

The school staff at first tried to put out the flames, delaying a call to the fire department by at least nine minutes, emergency officials said. High winds also hindered efforts to fight the fire.

The brick school building was heavily damaged. All windows were shattered and television footage showed charred bed frames and furniture. The walls were blackened.

Moscow officials expressed shock at the second deadly school blaze in four days. On Monday, a fire destroyed a wooden schoolhouse in the Siberian region of Yakutia, killing 22 students aged 11-18 and injuring at least ten.

"The country has once again been shaken by tragedy," the president, Vladimir Putin, said in a telegram to Dagestan's leader, Magomedali Magomedov. "I sincerely share the enormous sorrow that has affected hundreds of people, first of all the parents."