Huge explosions and fire ripped through a Russian military arsenal for hours Friday, killing two firefighters and prompting the evacuation of thousands of civilians nearby, officials said.
Dozens of people feared trapped in the conflagration took refuge in a bomb shelter and later emerged safe, officials said, dispelling worries of a high death toll. But a subsequent report said 11 others were unaccounted for.
Russian television networks showed dramatic footage of orange flames and thick clouds of smoke rising from the naval munitions facility in the Ulyanovsk province, with frequent explosions bursting high in the night sky.
“There was a loud bang, then there was silence and then explosions, explosions, explosions — like fireworks on New Year’s,” resident Igor Komandin told Channel One television. The blasts shook windows and set off car alarms miles (kilometers) away, residents told Russian media.
The blasts and blaze erupted while ammunition was being destroyed at the facility, according to the Federal Security Service branch in the province, which is 720 kilometers (430 miles) east of Moscow. Artillery shells and other munitions were stored at the site, state-run Channel One reported.
Two firefighters were killed and seven military personnel were injured, Defense Ministry spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said. Provincial governor Sergei Morozov said 3,000 people were evacuated from the area, Russian news agencies Interfax, ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti reported.
Hours after the blasts and fire began, Morozov said rescuers reported that more than 40 people who had been working at the facility were safe. “These are precisely the people considered to be missing and were most concerned about,” Morozov told Channel One by telephone. He had said earlier that 35 people were missing.
Civilians, military personnel unaccounted for
The provincial government said on its Web site that the 43 military personnel had taken refuge in a bomb shelter and emerged with the help of rescuers after firefighters “partially localized” the blaze.
State-run RIA Novosti later cited governor’s aide Sergei Davydov as saying 11 civilians and military personnel were unaccounted for, but that it was possible they were with relatives.
Morozov said the fire was out but that isolated explosions continued late Friday, Interfax reported. It quoted the governor as saying six people remained hospitalized.
Several explosions and fires have occurred at munitions storage facilities in the former Soviet Union in recent years. There has been no indication of terrorism in the conflagrations.
Artillery shells and other ammunition at a storage facility west of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, exploded when a forest fire got too close in August last year, and a fire and explosions at a munitions depot in southern Ukraine in 2004 killed five people. It took days to put the blaze out.
A fire at a Soviet-era military base in Kagan, Uzbekistan, spread to an ammunitions depot in July 2008, igniting a series of explosions that killed three people and injured 21 others.