Twenty-eight boys at a boarding school for the deaf died early this morning when fire swept through the aging facility in southern Russia, officials said. More than 100 other boys were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns, 22 of them in critical condition.
There was apparently no system for alerting the deaf children to danger, said Sergei Lupanov, a federal fire official in Moscow. After the fire began, school employees, neighbors and passers-by raced from cot to cot, shaking the students to awaken them.
The blaze in Makhachkala city, capital of the southern republic of Dagestan, provided a snapshot of myriad safety problems that beset Russia 12 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fire officials said the blaze was caused by an short-circuit, a common event given the faulty wiring in Russia's deteriorating buildings.
Local residents complained that the first fire engine had no water, that the fire ladders were too short to reach the second-floor dormitories and that three of the four ambulances had no oxygen, according to reporters at the newspaper Novoye Delo. Only four adults were on duty to care for 159 children between ages 7 and 14 when the blaze broke out at 2:19 a.m. in the two-story white stone building, according to Sergei Rasulov, a reporter for the newspaper.
Most of the dead were 7-year-olds sleeping in the dormitories closest to the fire, he said.
Oleg Khalilov, the republic's deputy emergency minister, told the ORT television network that the staff member on duty smelled smoke in the corridor and tried to put out the fire herself. By some accounts, nine minutes elapsed before the fire department was called.
Some children cowered under their beds in the darkness and had to be dragged out by rescuers. "Someone realized that they are deaf mutes and couldn't shout," a resident who ran to the school told reporter Rasulov. "Because it was dark, the rescuers couldn't see them. Nobody had flashlights."
Other children crowded by the windows, unable to call for help. "They were just standing there near the windows, not even shouting, just letting out some incoherent sounds," Ruslan Chupanov, deputy fire brigade commander, told the ORT network.
In violation of the fire code, some of the first-floor windows were barred, fire officials said.
Rustam Ismailov, a 23-year-old bystander who was drawn into the rescue effort, said he asked some children how many of them there were. They tried to answer in sign language, repeatedly opening and closing their hands to count by tens or by holding their hands flat at neck level, said Natasha Krainova, another Novoye Delo reporter who interviewed Ismailov.
It was the second calamitous fire at a Russian school this week. On Monday, a teacher and 22 youths ages 11 to 8 died when a fire destroyed a village school in Yakutia, in eastern Siberia.
In that case, the school's front door was unusable because the stairs that led to it had crumbled; two other doors were blocked and a toilet had been built in a fire escape, according to the deputy prosecutor for the region. The wooden school, built in 1927, burned to the ground.
"The education ministry does not have money to repair the schools," said fire official Lupanov. " . . . The teachers go on strike because they are not paid for months, to say nothing about money for repairs. After 10 years, buildings deteriorate."
Deaths from fire have jumped 160 percent in Russia since 1991, according to Lupanov. An average of 55 Russians a day died in fires last year, many of them homeless or poor people who used space heaters or jury-rigged electrical devices for heat, Lupanov said..
That's more than 10 times the death rate from fires in the United States. An average of 1.3 Americans per 100,000 die in fires every year, compared with 14 Russians, statistics indicate.