updated 9/13/2009 3:26:22 PM ET 2009-09-13T19:26:22

Fire roared through a drug-treatment center with a history of safety violations on Sunday, killing 37 people as patients tried to escape through barred windows, officials said.

The blaze broke out around 5:30 a.m. and quickly spread through the 7,000-square-foot single-story, Soviet-era building. About 40 people were evacuated from the building, Kazakhstan's Emergency Situations Ministry said.

"I heard them screaming for 20 minutes. They were screaming 'Save us, save us," said a woman who lives across the street, who gave her name only as Fatima.

The cause of the fire some 200 120 miles north of the capital, Almaty, was not immediately known. Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Bozhko said that locked doors on wards and bars on the windows blocked some potential escape routes.

He said inspectors had found a number of violations in the building during a visit in May and that the building had no alarm system. Some of the violations had been fixed, but work on installing an alarm system hadn't begun, he said.

At the city morgue, a sister of one of the victims berated police.

"They came and took him away because he was drinking too much. They said they were taking him away for six months to cure him of alcoholism but now he's dead," she wailed.

Prime Minister Karim Masimov has demanded the creation a commission to investigate the incident, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

Violations of safety regulations are common in much of the former Soviet Union and fatal fires are frequent. A 2006 fire at a drug treatment facility in Moscow killed 45 women.

According to Emergency Situations Ministry statistics there have been almost 10,000 fires in Kazakhstan in the first eight months of 2009.

More on Kazakhstan

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