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Hospital Fire Claims 21 In the Leningrad Oblast

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 building.

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 Thursday.

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 said.

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 support itself.

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