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38 dead in horrific blaze at Russian psychiatric hospital

At least 38 people were killed in a fire at a psychiatric hospital north of Moscow. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Thirty-eight people were killed by a fire that raged through an isolated psychiatric hospital north of Moscow on Friday, killing some patients in their beds and others who were trapped by barred windows.

Most of the patients died in their sleep inhaling the fumes as they were likely sedated by prescribed medicine, a police source told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Firefighters were delayed getting to the single-story building because of a closed river crossing. The trip took an hour instead of the expected 20 minutes, according to Russia Today, citing local news outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda.

A small tunnel was discovered dug out under the burned hospital, suggesting that one of the patients may have been planning an escape, Russia Today said.

Only three people - one nurse and two patients - escaped from the fire, which broke out at about 2 a.m. local time Friday (6 p.m. ET Thursday) in the village of Ramensky, 70 miles north of Moscow. 

Pavel Sergeyev / AP

Firefighters and authorities work at a site of a fire of a psychiatric hospital north of Moscow on Friday.

The blaze tore through a collection of wood and brick huts with bars on some windows that was home to people sectioned by Russian courts.

Russia’s Emergencies Ministry published a list of 41 patients and medical staff – ranging in age from 20 to 76 - who were inside the facility when the fire started [PDF link in Russian]. Two medical staff listed as “to be verified” are believed to be dead, Russia Today reported.

By mid morning, a few blackened walls were left standing, Reuters reported. The roof had caved in on top of the twisted metal of what were once beds. Bodies lay on nearby grass, covered with blankets. 

Irina Gumennaya, aide to the head of the chief investigative department of the Moscow region, dismissed suggestions they had been physically restrained as "rubbish" but promised blood tests to check whether there were high levels of sedatives. 

 

"The wards ... did not have doors, the sick could have escaped from the building by themselves," she said, according to Reuters, adding that she believed the most likely cause of the blaze was patients smoking, or perhaps a short circuit. 

Andrei Vorobyov, interim governor of the Moscow region, told Russia 24 television: "Those who were in there said it happened in a flash. The nurse opened the door to the room and there was smoke, and even when she saw the fire she could not get to the fire extinguisher. It all happened very quickly."

Reuters said more than 12,000 people were killed in fires in Russia in 2011 and more than 7,700 in the first nine months of 2012.

The per capita death rate from fires in Russia is much higher than in Western nations including the United States. Reuters reported:

President Vladimir Putin called for an explanation of the "tragedy" and told emergency services to do all they could to help.

Fires at state institutions in Russia such as hospitals, schools, drug treatment centers and homes for the elderly or disabled often cause casualties, raising questions about safety measures, conditions and escape routes.

Some people stood on the opposite bank of the Moscow canal from the hospital, trying to get across to check whether their relatives had survived. The police had stopped the ferry and fishing boats were not allowed to cross.

"They are not letting the relatives in. Why? How can we get there?" said Konstantin, whose father was in the hospital. "Living conditions? It was a slum in there. No conditions."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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AFP - Getty Images

A handout photo released by emergency services shows flames rising from the burning psychiatric hospital.

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