PRIMORSK, Leningrad Oblast - Twenty-one people
died in a fire that broke out Tuesday morning in a
single-story wooden hospital where 85 severely mentally
retarded patients were sleeping.
The fire started shortly after 2 a.m. Firemen said
when they arrived on the scene about 20 minutes later
the flames were already too strong and all they could
do was watch as more patients emerged from the burning
The cause of the blaze in Primorsk, a village of
simple wooden houses about 140 kilometers north of
St. Petersburg, had not been determined by press time
Three of the survivors suffered burns and smoke inhalation
and were hospitalized, and the rest were taken to
other psychiatric institutions.
They will suffer no further psychological damage
from the fire "because they have already forgotten
everything that happened," said Alexei Katsanov,
the head doctor of the hospital.
Firemen were able to get into the building only after
3 a.m. and it took them until 6 a.m. to extinguish
the flames, by which time the building had burned
to the ground. They continued to spray water on the
smoking wood into the night.
The 85 patients ranged in age from 18 to 80, and
many have lived in the institution for much of their
lives. Katsanov said they were all severely retarded
but denied that they were highly medicated or strapped
into their beds, which were all in one large room.
Vladimir Ivanov, one of about 10 fireman on the scene,
said the victims were burned beyond recognition.
"They will be identified only by the way they
were lying in their beds," he said. "Nobody
will be able to identify them by their faces because
there are no faces."
The hospital administration provided the firemen
with a list of 21 missing patients Tuesday morning.
The firemen continued to look for dead patients until
Wednesday afternoon, when they finally found the last
two patients who were earlier considered missing.
When reached by telephone Thursday, Primorsk officials
said that the reason of the fire was still unclear,
but regional administration officials speculated that
a short circuit or arson were possible causes. "The
patients were watching television rather late last
night and something may have gone wrong with the wiring,"
said Alexander Veretin of the oblast administration's
press center. "Then again, they are nut cases
and one of them may have set the building on fire."
Zinaida Bystrova, who heads the regional committee
for social care, said it was too bad it took a disaster
for the mentally retarded to get any attention.
"It is upsetting that people only remember the
mentally disabled when a fire occurs and nobody remembers
them when nothing horrendous is happening," Bystrova
The Psychiatric Hospital of Primorsk is funded by
the oblast budget and has not had enough money to
build a stone building, she said.
The hospital, whose administrative and medical buildings
were untouched by the fire, has run a dairy to help