Fire engulfs Moscow's famed television tower

MOSCOW - Fire engulfed the Ostankino television tower, the world's second-tallest freestanding structure, trapping four people in an elevator and knocking out most TV channels in the Russian capital Monday.

Firefighters have had trouble fighting the fire, which started Sunday about 1,520 feet above ground, due to the difficulty of hauling chemical fire extinguishers and other equipment up so many flights of stairs. The tower's spire is narrow at that point and the cramped quarters hampered movement.

Dozens of tired, smoke-stained firefighters in heavy rubber coats sat on the grass around the tower in northern Moscow late Sunday. Scores of fire engines and ambulances were parked at the bottom of the tower, which was lighted by at least three searchlights, as officials tried to figure out a way to fight the blaze.

Yellow flames licked from the glassed-in platform as darkness fell on the city. Thousands of people thronged to the base of the tower, gathering in a carnival atmosphere, drinking beer, laughing and a few dancing to transistor radios before they were pushed back by police.

By early Monday, the fire had been burning and TV stations had been out for almost 12 hours. Rescuers battled to locate the stuck elevator where three firefighters and a female elevator operator were trapped about 860 feet above ground, said Nikolai Sarychev, a fire department spokesman at the scene.

The 1,771-foot futuristic tower, shaped like a giant needle, is a popular tourist attraction. It has an observation deck and restaurant about two-thirds of the way up. The fire started well above that level, and officials said all visitors were evacuated.

Sarychev said no one so far had been killed or injured in the blaze.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known, but initial reports said it apparently was started by a short-circuit in equipment belonging to a paging company.

The fire began at about 3:30 p.m. By midnight, flames and smoke billowed out of much of the tower, which looms over a large park, and a plume of smoke towered over the city.

A huge helicopter capable of dropping water from a giant bag was brought to the scene but was not immediately deployed. Smaller helicopters occasionally circled the tower as firefighters tried to assess the situation.

Concerns were rising that the intense heat of the long-lasting fire could cause structural weaknesses in the tower. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was quoted as saying that the danger of it falling ''practically does not exist.''

The fire came on the heels of the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk with 118 men aboard, underlining the chain of disasters that have wracked Russia in recent years as its infrastructure crumbles due to lack of money.

The fire caused most television service to the capital and its surrounding region to go off the air. The three major channels, NTV, RTR and ORT, and several smaller channels were all down. NTV later was able to broadcast its news programs via a UHF channel unaffected by the blaze.

Residents of other parts of the country reported they were receiving all channels as usual. Spokesmen for the channels could not immediately be reached for comment on whether backup equipment was available or on how long the outage might last.

The tower also contains circuitry for law-enforcement agencies and emergency services, news reports said. The extent of the damage in those areas was not immediately known.

President Vladimir Putin held consultations late Sunday with Communications Minister Leonid Reiman on restoring broadcasting and ensuring communications for emergency services, news agencies reported.

The Ostankino tower was erected in 1967.


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