updated 10/12/2003 7:28:49 AM ET 2003-10-12T11:28:49

A fire whipped through a wooden mental hospital in Belarus on Sunday, killing 30 patients, some of whom were likely locked in their rooms, the government said. Officials said the fire was probably set by one of the patients.

Emergency workers initially pulled 29 bodies from the wreckage of the nearly century-old building, and one person died later of burns, in the fire in the village of Randilovshchina, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) west of the capital Minsk, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

One patient was missing, said Igor Zarembo, a duty officer at the ministry.

“He may have run away or he may have died. We haven’t found a body,” Zarembo said.

Some 31 patients received minor injuries and were sent to nearby psychiatric hospitals, he said.

No hospital staff were killed or injured in the blaze. A total of 62 patients were housed in the hospital.

A spokeswoman for President Alexander Lukashenko, Natalya Petkevich, said the fire was set by a patient who was known to be a pyromaniac and had tried to burn down the building on two previous occasions.

But Zarembo said that investigators were also considering a second possibility — that the fire resulted from careless handling of fire on the part of the staff. He said officials had ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire.

Emergency Situations Minister Valery Astapov told Belarusian television that hospital personnel tried to put the flames out themselves but failed. They only called firefighters half an hour later, he said.

He said that when firefighters arrived, the entire building was already in flames and the roof had caved in.

The hospital was designated for people deemed unable to function whose relatives refused to take care of them.

The patients, men and women aged 30 to 60, all lived in a one-story wooden building built in 1905 with locked doors and bars on the windows, Zarembo said. He said most likely the doors of the patients’ rooms were also locked.

When the fire broke out, a nurse and orderly who were on duty were asleep in a separate building. When they awoke to patients’ screams and the smell of smoke, they unlocked what doors they could and tried to extinguish the fire.

The fire occurred at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT), the Emergency Situations Ministry said. Officials did not inform the media until about 12 hours later.

Petkevich said the patient believed to have set the fire was killed.

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