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15 Nov, 2009 16:17

Military storehouse fire rocks Central Russia, thousands evacuated

The Russian city of Ulyanovsk is recovering from a series of explosions at an arms depot that killed two servicemen and injured dozens of people. Hundreds of people were forced to leave their home to escape the blaze.

It all began as workers at the facility were destroying weapons when a fire broke out and spread into the arsenal, setting off explosions of volcanic proportions, lighting up the night sky and terrifying nearby neighborhoods.

Telecommunications were cut off, with no contact to landline or mobile phones.

The incident occurred on Friday at about 4 pm Moscow (1 pm GMT) time. And it took almost 10 hours for the firefighters to put out the blaze.

Two firefighters have been confirmed to be dead. According to the Emergencies Ministry, dozens were injured.

43 people, who had earlier been considered missing, have been rescued from a bomb shelter at the site, according to the Governor's spokesperson, Natalya Martynova.

"They were within the territory of the military arsenal and were driven from the bomb shelter after the fire was partly contained," Martynova said.

According to the presidential representative to the region, Grigory Rapota, a larger number of casualties were avoided because of emergency drills conducted recently at the depot.

Reports say up to 3,000 people have been evacuated from the dangerous area. People whose houses had their windows blown out have been provided with temporary housing.

The dangerous area (some 1,012 buildings) was checked by sappers, who found and removed some 42 undetonated projectiles. However, the authorities warn that there might be more of them left.

Sappers continue working in Ulyanovsk to destroy unexploded shells found at the ammunition arsenal site after the fire.

Several military units have arrived in the city to help local rescue teams in their work. Local officials promise to restore damage from the accident within two days, assuring uninterrupted heating of residential areas and administrative buildings.

Investigators are also working at the site.

All hell breaking loose

Nearby residents – a population of 40,000 – suddenly found their windows being blown in and their houses rattled. As over 200 rescue officials quickly arrived on scene, residents started showing up at a local hospital for treatment, but even there, glass was all over the floors.

“Our hospital is about 15 kilometers away from the artillery storage. About 6 windows were broken in the building,” said Natalya Rozorvina, an eyewitness.

“My daughter called me and told me all hell had broken loose, and she didn’t know what to do. Then the line went dead and we haven’t had a connection since,” one of the local residents said. “There’s no connection to that part of the city.”

“My friend texted me to say all people from the city’s upper bank have been taken to the new town; there’s no one left there except for the emergency doctors and rescuers,” a local said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev wasted no time calling on emergency officials to expend all efforts to save lives.

President Dmitry Medvedev has instructed the Interior Ministry and the Emergencies Ministry to look into the reasons behind the explosion and examine similar facilities to see whether staff there are abiding by safety standards.

Military staff have been questioned to find out how the blasts and fire began. But it's understood they were destroying decommissioned weapons at the time.

Investigators and cleanup crews are working at the scene. Most of them are looking into whether negligence was the main cause of the blast.

“This is not the first blast of this kind on the Russian territory,” military analyst Vadim Kozyulin said. “I can recount more than 20 accidents that took place in different regions of the country.”

Preliminary results of the investigation suggest that technical problems might have been behind the blasts. Earlier a military source told Interfax news agency that a possible reason for it may have been the disposal of ammunition.

The first witness accounts were from a man who had been thrown by the blast out of the section where the fire occurred, according to the Ulyanovsk Region’s Governor, Sergey Morozov. The man said that he heard a clap first, followed by a powerful explosion.

A terrorist attack is not considered a possible reason of the explosions, according to the head of the Russian Federal Security Service’s press office, Faina Saifullina. Morozov echoed this assertion. However, he has urgently called the Security Council and the anti-terrorist commission.