MOSCOW // A fire sparked by a pyrotechnic show tore through a nightclub in central Russia early yesterday, killing at least 106 people and leaving scores of others wounded and in critical condition, officials said. The blaze at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm, 1,150 kilometres north-east of Moscow, broke out at 1.30am and spread quickly through the venue, prompting panicked clubgoers to rush to the exits, investigators and witnesses said.
Around 280 people were in the club when a stray firework from an indoor pyrotechnical show ignited the wooden ceiling, officials and witnesses said. An amateur video shot inside the club showed the flames rapidly engulf the ceiling - which appeared to have been made of twigs - as alarm among the clientele mounted. Officials said most of victims died at the scene of carbon monoxide poisoning, while several others died after being hospitalised. There were conflicting reports about the number of dead and wounded. The state-run RIA-Novosti news agency yesterday afternoon put the death toll at 109, while emergency situations officials in the evening said 106 people had died. More than 130 people were hospitalised with serious injuries, officials said.
Negligence and notoriously lax fire safety standards are blamed for Russia's disturbingly high rate of fire fatalities. More than 15,000 people died in fires in Russia last year, according to the Russian emergency situations ministry, almost five times the number of fire fatalities in the United States, which has more than twice Russia's population. Ageing infrastructure, including Soviet-era apartment buildings and electrical systems that have not been repaired for decades, have also been faulted in many of Russia's deadly blazes in recent years.
The country has been on edge since a terrorist attack on a Moscow-St Petersburg train last week. The Nevsky Express derailed after a bomb planted on the tracks detonated, killing 26 passengers. Officials, however, moved quickly to establish that yesterday's deadly nightclub fire was an accident. "We are not talking about a terrorist attack," Oleg Chirkunov, governor of the Perm region, told Vesti-24 television.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, declared tomorrow a national day of mourning to commemorate the victims. Mr Medvedev harshly rebuked the nightclub manager and co-owner who were detained by investigators yesterday - allegedly while trying to flee the Perm region - on suspicion of criminal fire safety negligence leading to multiple deaths. "It seems to me that, first of all, they have no brains and no conscience, and, secondly, a completely ambivalent attitude about what happened," Mr Medvedev said in televised comments during a video conference with top health, emergency and law enforcement officials.
If convicted, the suspects - club manager Svetlana Yefremova and co-owner Anatoly Zak - could face up to seven years in prison. Yesterday evening Russia's main investigative body, the Investigative Committee, announced that three more suspects had been detained: the club's art director, its other co-owner and the individual businessman who organised the pyrotechnical show. A police source told the Interfax news agency that Mr Zak said he was not responsible for the tragedy because he had rented out the venue.
Mr Medvedev criticised the criminal code for being too soft on those convicted of violating fire safety standards. "We must think about the laws on such events," he said. "They should be much stricter, and failure to abide by them, including breaches of fire safety regulations, should be much more severely punished." Inspectors in Russia are infamous for overlooking safety violations in exchange for bribes. Sergei Shoigu, Russia's emergency situations ministry, told Mr Medvedev, however, that fire inspectors examined the nightclub last year and issued two fines to the owner of 1,800 and 1,000 roubles (Dh224 and Dh124), respectively. Russia's Prosecutor General's Office issued a directive yesterday ordering all of its regional branches to organise safety inspections of all mass gathering venues by December 15.
Photographs and video footage from the scene showed charred bodies lying on the ground outside the nightclub. A female patron who survived the fire told state-run Channel One television that the clubgoers were blinded by the smoke as they tried desperately to flee. "Everyone dashed for one exit and busted down the door," the woman said. "People were just breaking the doors down, a panic erupted and everything was covered in smoke. You couldn't see anything at all."
Tatyana Golikova, Russia's health and social development minister, said yesterday afternoon that dozens of the wounded were on life support and that most of them had sustained burns on more than 50 per cent of their bodies. email@example.com