In Russian renaissance, safety takes backseat

Posted in Russia | 06-Nov-07 | Author: C.J. Chivers| Source: International Herald Tribune

A charred staircase gave an indication of the ferocity of a blaze that killed 11 and injured at least 30 at an institute in Moscow.

MOSCOW: Sergey Babayan was trapped. Minutes before, wisps of smoke had begun flowing through cracks in his classroom door at the private Moscow Institute of Government and Corporate Management.

There had been no other warning, not even an alarm. Now smoke filled the room and flames roared in the corridor, where the steel door to the sole fire exit was locked. The only escape was out the windows, four stories above the street.

Students jostled at the sills and screamed. One young woman scrambled to the ledge and fell, slamming onto a canopy two stories below. Gasping to breathe, Babayan, 17, crawled out and clung to an air conditioner.

There he saw his chance: a cigarette-thick cable dangling nearby from the roof. He grabbed hold and descended - a sensation, judging by his injuries, like sliding down a knife. Other students and teachers started to leap, shattering themselves on the ground.

Eight years into the administration of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has filled its coffers with cash and its ministries with swagger, allowing the Kremlin to reclaim a place on the world's stage. But the fast-moving fire on Oct. 2, and the grotesque panorama of desperation, injury and death that accompanied it, underscored the enduring disorder beneath Russia's partial revival.

Respect for law, safety and public health, and the Russian government's ability to govern, still lag far behind the Kremlin's restored sense of self, as evidenced by the scale at which Russia's population suffers from fires.

More than 17,000 people died in fires in 2006 in Russia, nearly 13 for every 100,000 people. This is more than 10 times the rates typical of Western Europe and the United States, according to statistics from Russia's government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States and the Geneva Association, a Swiss organization that analyzes international fire statistics.

In the first eight months of this year Russia's death rate from fires dropped by about 10 percent, according to the government, but it remains staggeringly high. Recent court proceedings, and interviews with survivors of fires and public safety officials, illustrate many of the reasons.

The death toll - hovering this year at about 40 people a day - flows from myriad factors. Among them are aging electrical and heating systems in public housing and rural homes, dilapidated firefighting equipment and widespread violations of safety codes.

High rates of alcoholism and smoking are also factors, fire officials say, because intoxicated people are often unable to escape fires, or inadvertently set them.

"There is the problem and behavior of drunkards," Lieutenant General Aleksandr Chupriyan, Russia's deputy emergency services minister, said in an interview earlier this year. "Not only they themselves die, but a number of absolutely innocent people die with them."

In the country's principal cities, traffic-clogged roads - caused by soaring rates of automobile ownership and uneven urban planning - have slowed fire engine response times. In rural areas, great distances between fire stations have a similar effect, often preventing firefighters from reaching the scene before it is too late, fire officials said.

Layers of interior materials from repeated renovations in buildings often serve as fuel once a fire erupts, one fire chief said. Even new buildings with up-to-date safety equipment have proven at times to be death traps.

"We can use and install the top of the line monitoring and fire-fighting systems, but at the same time violate the rules and block fire escape routes," Chupriyan said. "There are too many examples."

Sergei Anikeev, the chief fire inspector in Moscow, said at a recent news conference that petty crime and negligence had amplified the dangers. Even when new buildings have safety equipment installed, he said, within a year the equipment is often stolen or rendered useless.

Effective fire prevention and firefighting have been problems in Russia since the Soviet Union's collapse. A dacha owned by Putin was destroyed by fire in 1996; he later suggested that ill-prepared firefighters factored in the loss.

"The firemen arrived but they ran out of water right away," he said in a compilation of interviews published in book form in 2000. " 'What do you mean, you're out of water? There's a whole lake right here!' I said. 'There's a lake,' they agreed, 'but no hose.' "

Since 1996, there have been improvements in firefighting capacity, and the slight decline in fire deaths appears to flow in part from changes made by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which has been responsible for firefighting during Putin's second term and is regarded as one of the government's more effective ministries.

The ministry has engaged Western firefighting organizations and tried to adopt standards that have succeeded elsewhere. In Soviet times, for example, medical units were part of the emergency ministry and did not work closely with firefighting units, which were part of the Interior Ministry.

After studying fire departments in the United States, Russia combined both services under the emergency ministry's command about five years ago, and fatalities from fires began to fall.

Radios and dispatching systems, as well as protective equipment for firefighters, have also been upgraded. But fire officials say that the state of equipment varies widely. Many units in Moscow have new Western-made trucks. In the regions, however, and even in St. Petersburg, equipment is often old and in poor condition.

They also say that the low salaries of firefighters - a beginning firefighter is paid about $400 a month - have made attracting candidates difficult, especially as the cost-of-living in Russia has risen sharply during Putin's second term.

The effectiveness of reform efforts has been limited by the intractable national problems that have continued throughout Putin's administration, including a pandemic of official corruption, a weak judicial system and official incompetence.

For example, fire inspectors have latitude over how to handle fire code violations, and this authority is often abused, said Elena Panfilova, director of the Russian office of Transparency International, a private anti-corruption organization.

"Pretty much nobody follows fire safety standards in Russia, but building owners and tenants negotiate bribes with fire inspectors," she said. "It is common here. Everyone understands it."

Examples in recent years have shown how the many factors can combine.

During the terrorist siege at a public school in Beslan in 2004, which ended with a fire spreading through the roof of a gymnasium crowded with hostages, the first fire trucks to arrive had almost no water. Residents called a private fire truck from a vodka factory, and eventually fought the fire themselves. The roof collapsed; more than 120 charred victims were found beneath it.

A fire last year in a bank in Vladivostok killed 9 women and severely burned 20 other people; investigators later said the bank had blocked its fire exits and had no extinguishers or alarms. Rescuers had trouble reaching the trapped victims because access was blocked by illegally parked cars. In September, a court convicted five people of negligence and fire code violations.

A fire last weekend at a nursing home in Tula killed 32 people. Fire officials said the nursing home had failed two fire inspections this year but had managed to remain open and did not have a fire alarm. By the time firefighters were notified of the blaze, they said, the fire had burned uncontrollably for 30 minutes and many residents were trapped.

Colonel Ranat Yunisov, commander of Fire Rescue Unit No. 55, which fought a fire at a Moscow drug treatment center in December that killed 46 people, described extraordinary difficulties the firefighters faced, in part because the incompetence of the clinic's staff.

"Those who were supposed to be awake were asleep, and some of the patients were drugged and could not get away," he said in an interview. "And part of it was our Russian mentality. The workers did not want to show that there was a problem, so they tried to fight the fire themselves and by the time they realized it was too late, it was really too late."

Yunisov's unit fought the fire at the business institute, too. The building was a fire trap, he and two other fire officials said. The fourth floor, where the classes were located, had no fire alarm system. It had two staircases, but the fire broke out near one. The other was sealed by a locked steel door.

There had been an inspection in August, but the inspector had determined that these violations were not a threat to human life and the institute's rector had not remedied them. After the fire broke out, the institute did not call for an evacuation or for firefighters, who said they learned of the fire only after a passer-by called it in.

People were already jumping out windows before the fire trucks appeared. Many trusted their fate to nearby construction workers who tried to catch them in hastily spread tarps. The firefighters' path to the building was hindered by illegally parked cars.

"We were indignant and angry, because the firefighters did not raise their ladders," said Vladislav Yermikhin, who jumped onto a tarp held open like a net. He shattered his pelvis and a hip, and suffered a concussion. "If it had not been for the construction workers, it would have been much worse."

So far 11 people have died as a result of the fire, including 5 whose blackened remains were found in a classroom after firefighters cut through the locked fire door.

At least 30 people remain in hospitals with burns and ruined limbs. Three victims complained in interviews that their suffering was made worse, and treatment delayed, because medical vehicles were few and late in arriving. By then, they said, dozens of people who jumped were writhing or unconscious on the ground.

Babayan, who escaped but severely damaged his hands with the slide down the wire, said he later learned that the young woman who went out the window first did not survive.

"She probably could have lived," he said, "if more people had not jumped on top of her."

Mike Schwirtz contributed reporting.