Russian psychiatric ward fire kills 23 as investigators blast lessons unlearnt

A handout picture provided on Dec 13, 2015 by the Russian Emergencies Ministry shows firefighters and rescuers working among the debris of a psychiatric hospital destroyed by the fire in the village of Alfyorovka, in the southern Voronezh region.
A handout picture provided on Dec 13, 2015 by the Russian Emergencies Ministry shows firefighters and rescuers working among the debris of a psychiatric hospital destroyed by the fire in the village of Alfyorovka, in the southern Voronezh region. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP) – Twenty-three patients, most of them elderly, died when a fire ripped through a psychiatric hospital in southern Russia Saturday night, in the latest tragedy to hit the country’s mental health infrastructure. 

President Vladimir Putin on Sunday (Dec 13)) expressed deep condolence to the relatives of those who died in the blaze, while a powerful panel questioned whether officials had learnt from past disasters. 

The fire broke out shortly before midnight (2100 GMT) Saturday at the hospital in the village of Alfyorovka, in the southern Voronezh region. 

Seventy patients and four nurses were in a Soviet-era ward when the blaze occurred. Twenty-three patients died, and 23 people were hospitalised.  Most of the fatalities were aged in their 60s and 70s, although some were in their 40s and 50s, according to a list of patients released by the emergencies ministry. 

The state-owned Rossiya 24 rolling news channel said patients had been given tranquillisers as part of their medication before the fire broke out.  “They simply did not wake up,” a correspondent reported from the scene, saying the victims choked on noxious smoke. 

Igor Kobzev, chief of the Voronezh regional branch of the emergencies ministry, said “the epicentre of the fire was located in a place where bedridden patients were.” The fire gutted the brick-and-timber hospital building, with footage showing firefighters combing through the smoking ruins in light snow. 

It took more than 440 firefighters and emergency workers around three hours to bring the fire under control.  The Investigative Committee, which reports directly to Putin, said it had opened a criminal probe on suspicion of negligence. 

The blaze was the latest tragedy to hit a psychiatric institution in Russia, where outdated Soviet-era infrastructure is still in widespread use and managers often take a lax approach to fire safety. 

Critics say such fires, which often claim the lives of the most vulnerable people, are a source of embarrassment for the Kremlin. 

In a toughly-worded statement, Vladimir Markin, the spokesman of the Russian Investigative Committee, pointed to a long litany of past mistakes.  “Mass deaths of socially disadvantaged people every time happen due to the same reasons: insufficient financing, dilapidated buildings, staff shortages especially during night shifts,” he said. 

“And every time the Russian Investigative Committee exposes inadmissible violations that facilitated the tragedies,” he said, urging society to demand safe, modern hospitals and care facilities. 

Experts were looking into what triggered the blaze, investigators said. 

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered officials to provide support to the families of the victims, while Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov went to the scene to oversee the response to the tragedy. 

Medical personnel said patients did not have access to matches or lighters.  Nurse Nadezhda Sukhareva said patients were allowed to smoke but staff would light their cigarettes for them outside the building.  “There’s no way we would give them matches,” she said in televised remarks. 

Activist Konstantin Rubakhin, whose father was born in Alfyorovka, said the hospital had been a dreadful place.  “It was hard to step inside these wooden barracks encircled by a fence,” he wrote on Facebook, posting pictures of rooms with cracked linoleum, grubby walls and decrepit furniture.  “I would make it mandatory for governors to tour such places.”

Governor Alexei Gordeyev declared Monday a day of mourning in the Voronezh region. 

A fire at a psychiatric hospital in northwest Russia in September 2013 left 37 people dead, while a blaze in a psychiatric ward near Moscow in April of the same year killed 38. 

In 2009, 156 people were killed in a nightclub fire in the city of Perm, some 1,200 kilometres east of Moscow in one of the deadliest accidents in Russia’s modern history.