37 killed in pre-dawn fire at Russian psychiatric hospital

Emergency crews and firefighters work at the site of a fire at a psychiatric hospital in the Luka village in Novgorod, Russia, early Friday. Russian Emergency Ministry via AP

MOSCOW -- A fire at a Russian psychiatric hospital on Friday killed 37 people, the top investigative agency in the province where the blaze occurred said.

The bodies of 10 of the 37 victims were recovered from the ruins of the building that burned down in a pre-dawn fire, the Novgorod regional branch of Russia's Investigative Committee said n a statement, without giving details on the other 27 victims.

The pre-dawn fire at a ward for severely ill patients was the second deadly blaze at a psychiatric hospital in Russia this year and is likely to prompt criticism of the state over its treatment of the mentally ill and other vulnerable citizens.

Emergency authorities had recently sought to have the building condemned as unfit for use, a senior official said.

An orderly died while trying to save patients at the hospital in the town of Luka in the Novgorod region, the federal Investigative Committee said. 

Ministry official Oleg Voronov said there were about 60 people in the building, most of them patients, when the fire broke out.

Officials said more than 20 patients were evacuated.

Investigators suspect the blaze was caused by a patient setting a bed on fire, Interfax news agency reported, but regional governor Sergei Mitin said it might have been accidental.

"Medical personnel saw a patient who was shrouded in flames. ... It's possible that he was smoking in bed and the mattress caught fire," Mitin said, according to Interfax. He said the ward that caught fire housed severely ill patients.

Emergency officials and prosecutors had sought to have the building condemned as unsafe, but a court instead ordered management to correct unspecified flaws by August 2014, the head of safety oversight for the Emergencies Ministry said.

"The building that burned was unfit for use," the official, Yuri Deshevykh, told Itar-Tass.

There have been many fires with high death tolls at state institutions such as hospitals, schools, drug treatment centers and homes for the disabled in the past decade, raising questions about safety measures, conditions and emergency exit routes.

The country is also plagued accidents on its roads, rails, rivers and in the workplace, taking the shine off a post-Soviet recovery for which President Vladimir Putin's government claims a measure of credit.

In April, a fire at a psychiatric hospital outside Moscow killed 38 people.

Yuri Savenko, president of the independent psychiatric association of Russia, said after that fire the dilapidated state of psychiatric hospitals was pushing death tolls in such incidents up. He said a third of the buildings at such facilities had been declared unfit for use since 2000.