MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- A fire believed to have
been set by a psychiatric patient engulfed a Belarusian
mental hospital Sunday, killing 30 patients and reducing
much of the nearly century-old building to ash.
One of the 62 patients who lived at the hospital
in the village of Randilovshchina, some 250 kilometers
(150 miles) west of the capital Minsk, was missing.
Emergency officials said they did not know whether
he ran away or died in the pre-dawn blaze.
Another 31 patients received minor injuries, officials
said. No hospital staff were in the building at the
time of the fire.
A spokeswoman for President Alexander Lukashenko,
Natalya Petkevich, said the fire was set by a patient
who was known to be a pyromaniac and had tried to
burn down the building on two previous occasions.
But Zarembo said investigators were also considering
a second possibility -- that the fire resulted from
carelessness on the part of the staff. He said officials
had ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire.
A nurse and an orderly were sleeping in a separate
building on the hospital grounds when the fire broke
out, Zarembo said. When they awoke to screams and
the smell of smoke, they apparently panicked and tried
to extinguish the flames and rescue the patients themselves,
instead of immediately contacting authorities.
"As a result of such poorly thought-out actions,
by the time emergency personnel arrived, one of the
hospital's wings was completely engulfed in flames
and the roof and ceiling had collapsed," Emergency
Situations Minister Valery Astapov told Belarusian
The patients, men and women aged 30 to 60 who were
deemed unable to function independently and whose
relatives refused to take care of them, all lived
in a one-story wooden building constructed in 1905
with locked doors and bars on the windows, Zarembo
said. He said most likely the doors of the patients'
rooms were also locked.
The nurse and the orderly unlocked all of the doors
they could, but some were already cut off by flames,
Zarembo said. The building was divided into two wings
separated by a stone wall, and the wing where the
fire began was completely destroyed, he said. Damage
was less severe in the other half.
Petkevich said the patient believed to have set the
fire was killed. She said he had on two previous occasions
attempted to set fire to the hospital and was known
to be a pyromaniac.
Lukashenko ordered Prosecutor General Viktor Sheiman
and the state secretary of the Belarusian Security
Council, Gennady Nevyglas, to conduct a thorough investigation
in the next week, Petkevich said.
Human rights activists said the fire was a result
of the dismal state of Belarus' psychiatric hospitals,
which are poorly funded and largely unreformed since
the Soviet era.
"These are God-forsaken places that are closed
to public monitoring," said Garry Poganyailo,
deputy chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Group,
a leading human rights organization.
He said that even if the fire was set by a patient
"it was the fault of the staff, who failed to
fulfill their direct duties and watch the patients."
Reached by telephone, officials at the hospital refused
The fire occurred at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT), the Emergency
Situations Ministry said. Officials in this often-secretive
country did not release any information until about
12 hours later.