MOSCOW (AP) — A pre-dawn fire swept though a rundown
Russian dormitory for quarantined foreign students yesterday,
trapping many behind permanently locked exits and causing some to
leap from the five-story building.

Mira Levitan
A man looks at a charred dormitory belonging to the Patrice Lumumba Friendship of Peoples University in Moscow early yesterday. An early-morning fire raced through a Moscow dormitory filled with foreign students. (AP PHOTO)

Thirty-six students died and nearly 200 were injured, some from
frostbite after fleeing half naked into the bitter cold. The
students — from Asia, Africa and Latin America — had
just arrived in Moscow and were being held in the dorm awaiting
medical checks before starting classes.

“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 witnesses said dozens of fire engines were slow
to reach the blaze, 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
journalism student from Guinea.

The fire, believed to have been caused by an electrical
malfunction, engulfed the building at People’s Friendship
University. It burned for more than three hours, though Moscow fire
safety department spokesman Yevgeny Bobylyov insisted that
firefighters arrived on time and did their job well.

Flames gutted most of the dorm above the ground floor. Smoke
poured from windows as a wet snow fell in the early morning
darkness. The fire left the building’s concrete walls
streaked with black soot, and nearby trees were caked with ice that
had formed from water used to extinguish the blaze.

Once a showpiece of Soviet patronage of the Third World,
receiving generous state subsidies, the university declined with
the 1991 fall of communism.

Still, it continued to draw students from impoverished nations
with its low tuition, such as medical school costs of $1,200 a
year.

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.

“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.

gazing in shock at the blackened shell of the building.

 

Lubov Zhomova of the Moscow Health Directorate said 36 people
died and 197 others were injured — 57 of them in serious or
grave condition.

A preliminary investigation pointed to an electrical problem,
Deputy Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told President Vladimir
Putin, who inquired about the fire during a Cabinet session. Some
bystanders said the fire could have been started 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 postcolonial
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.

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 shrinking to almost nothing, many foreign students
trade goods to make money, and already cramped dormitories 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.

 

 

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