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36 die, 200 injured in Moscow dorm fire
( 2003-11-25 10:23) (Agencies)

Foreign students trapped by a fire roaring through a dilapidated university dormitory where some exits were blocked shrieked for help and leapt in desperation from its upper stories in an early-morning conflagration that killed 36 people and injured nearly 200 others.

The fire, believed to have been caused by an electrical malfunction, engulfed the five-story building at People's Friendship University, which was showpiece during Soviet times but fell into disrepair after the collapse f the Soviet Union.

Firefighters extinguish the fire, which engulfed most of a five-story dormitory belonging to the Patrice Lumumba Friendship of Peoples University, Moscow, early Monday, Nov. 24, 2003 in this image from television.  [AP]
The building served as a quarantine facility for foreign students who had just arrived in Russia and were to undergo medical checks before starting their studies. Students said the dead and injured included citizens of China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Tahiti, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Angola, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Kazakhstan, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Peru and Malaysia; the Chinese foreign ministry said 34 Chinese students were injured and 17 others were missing.

"A man from Ecuador shattered himself and died when he jumped out of the fifth floor," said Adam Rosales, a 22-year old Peruvian student, as he gazed in shock at the blackened hulk of the building.

Lubov Zhomova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow Health Directorate, said 36 people died and 200 others were injured ! 57 of them in serious or grave condition.

"It was like a horrible nightmare," Abdallah Bong, a student from Chad. "We saw them crying for help and jumping out of the windows, and we could do nothing to save them."

Bong and other eyewitnesses said that dozens of fire engines were slow to start action as they jammed into a narrow access road blocked by parked cars.

"Students had to do it all themselves, holding mattresses for those who were jumping out," said Nafafe Tengna, a third-year journalism student from Guinea. Some half-naked victims suffered frostbite as ambulances were slow to arrive.

Moscow fire safety department spokesman Yevgeny Bobylyov insisted that the firefighters arrived on time and did their job well.

The flames roared for more than three hours, gutting most of the dormitory above the ground floor, and smoke poured from windows as a wet snow fell in the pre-dawn darkness. After the fire was put out, the building's concrete walls were streaked with dark black soot, and nearby trees were caked with ice that had formed from water used to extinguish the blaze.

A preliminary investigation pointed to an electrical problem, Deputy Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told Russian President Vladimir Putin, who inquired about the fire during a Cabinet session. Some bystanders said the fire could have been sparked by electric heaters, which students use to get warm.

The university was founded in 1960 and named Patrice Lumumba People's Friendship University in honor of the post-colonial Congo's first prime minister; its name was changed in 1992. Its aim was to offer a strict Marxist curriculum to students from developing nations.

It served as a showcase of Soviet patronage of the Third World, receiving generous state subsidies, but declined after the 1991 Soviet collapse as government funding dried up. But the university has continued to attract students from impoverished with its low tuition ! medical school tuition runs US$1,200 a year.

A 22-year old student from Mauritius, who identified himself only by his first name, Vashish, described the school's accommodations as "miserable." He and other students said one of the dormitory's two stairways was permanently locked, making an emergency exit more difficult.

With stipends for foreign students shrinking to almost nothing, many trade goods to make money, and dormitories ! already cramped ! are often packed with bags and bundles.

Russia has a high rate of fire deaths, 18,000 a year. That is nearly five times the number of fire deaths in the United States, which has twice the population. The contrast is even starker with the United Kingdom, where there are 600 fire deaths a year, or one per 100,000 people ! compared to 12.5 per 100,000 in Russia.

Experts say fire fatalities have skyrocketed since the end of the Soviet Union, in part because of lower public vigilance and a disregard for safety standards. The age of Russia's buildings also plays a role: Many older buildings have wood partitions between the floors that help fires spread rapidly.

On the Net:

University website: http://www.pfu.edu.ru/eng

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