At least two killed in blaze gutting landmark Moscow tower

MOSCOW - At least two people, an elevator operator and a firefighter, were killed when an elevator plunged hundreds of feet to the ground in a blaze that engulfed Moscow's landmark television tower, officials said Monday.

The fire, which lasted for 26 hours before being put out Monday, left the 1,771-foot Ostankino tower a spectacular hulk, much of its interior scorched or soot-coated and webs of wiring melted. Concerns rose that the protracted fire's intense heat may have warped structural elements that could cause parts of the tower to fall or put them beyond repair.

The blaze was a backbreaking ordeal for firefighters, who hauled heavy gear up dozens of flights of stairs. They finally extinguished it around 5:40 p.m., Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said.

The bodies of a high-ranking firefighter and an elevator operator were found in the wreckage, said Viktor Beltsov, a spokesman for the Moscow Emergency Situations Ministry. As many as four people were believed to have been in the elevator and workers continued to search through the debris, he said.

The elevator had become stuck high up in the tower in the fire's early phase, and it wasn't immediately clear whether the victims were still alive when it plunged. Five other elevators also crashed to the ground during the inferno, Russian media reported.

The blaze knocked out most television service in the sprawling Russian capital, leaving residents longing for news and entertainment and dispirited over the latest in a string of disasters that have underscored the country's deteriorating infrastructure.

Grigory Sokolov, an unemployed recent college graduate watching the firefighting Monday afternoon, said he was disturbed ''not because the soap operas are off the air, but because of the news programs.''

''There was no safety system - as usual,'' said retired engineer Vladimir Ilin, gazing up at the tower.

Automatic firefighting systems within the tower appeared to have failed or had run out of fire-suppressing foam, officials said. The fire started in the tower's thin spire about 1,470 feet above ground, and spread downward, burning the observation deck and restaurant that made the tower a popular attraction for Muscovites and tourists.

A Moscow city surveyor on the scene, Vladimir Aleksin, said the tower's upper spire had tilted slightly, and that the tip of the structure was off-center by about six feet.

Bundles of steel support cables running up the middle of the tower had been damaged, fire department deputy director Vyacheslav Mulishkin said.

''The cables are weakened, but have not broken,'' he said.

A series of recent disasters, including gas explosions, industrial accidents and breakdowns in the power grid, have highlighted how poor funding and maintenance have weakened Russia's infrastructure. The fire came on the heels of an Aug. 12 accident that sunk the nuclear submarine Kursk, killing all 118 people on board.

''This emergency highlights what condition vital facilities, as well as the entire nation, are in,'' President Vladimir Putin said at a government meeting. ''Only economic development will allow us to avoid such calamities in the future.''

Television channels were still able to transmit nationally in spite of the fire. Putin on Monday ordered that broadcasts of the major channels in Moscow be resumed within a week, but it was unclear whether that could be accomplished.

More than 300 firefighters and other emergency workers were called in to battle the conflagration, which was apparently sparked Sunday by a short-circuit in wiring belonging to a paging company. Visitors were quickly evacuated from the tower's restaurant and observation deck.

Rushailo, the interior minister, said authorities considered it unlikely that the fire was set intentionally. But prosecutors opened an investigation Monday into whether criminal negligence was responsible for the fire, the Interfax news agency reported.

For decades, the Ostankino tower stood as a symbol of the Soviet Union's powerful technological potential. It surpassed the Empire State Building as the world's tallest freestanding structure when it was built in 1967, and held the title until 1975 when it was surpassed by the CN tower in Toronto.


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