2008/02/25

February 25 in Russian history. The big fire.

To the firemen of all countries, who save people and don't care about their citizenship.

1977

In the evening of 25 February, the hotel Rossiya in Moscow, once the largest hotel in the world, was overcrowded. The restaurant on 21 floor of the hotel's tower was full and even the small banquet hall above the restaurant, on 22 floor, was occupied by the graduates of the MVTU (Bauman's Moscow Higher Technical College, on of the best engineering universities of Russia). On the 17 floor there was a VIP hall where another celebration was going on. Altogether, there were about 5,000 people in the hotel, including the guests and the staff.

At 21:24 the dispatcher of the fire security service of the hotel Sukhova received multiple signals of the fire alarm system. The signals were immediately confirmed by a call from the staff member Tikhonova, from the 13 floor of the Northern wing of the main building (the hotel had the form of a cross with four wings and with the tower rising above the main building). Sukhova reported the alarm to the sergeant of the Moscow fire department Nina Pereverzeva at the same minute, 21:24. Sergeant Pereverzeva sent the firefighters from the 47th detachment to Rossiya. In the next minute she received about fifty more calls with the reports of the fire in the hotel, both from the hotel and from the streets. This meant that in one minute the fire became so strong that it was seen from the outside. Nobody ever saw the fire to spread so fast. There were about 3,000 fire extinguishers in the hotel and the staff attempted to use them, but they were useless in this firestorm.

The first firefighter who arrives at the site has to assign the threat code to the fire, from 1, the least dangerous, to 5, extremely dangerous. Lieutenant Bukanov from the 47th firefighting detachment led that first group. From the very first minute he assigned code 5 to that fire. It was an extraordinary decision. Among other things it meant that the top commanders of the fire department had to arrive at the site as soon as possible.

81 firefighters and 14 fire-engines, including 3 water tanks and 5 fire-pumps were at Bukanov's disposal, but only one machine of the 14 had a ladder and that ladder reached only to the 7th floor. When general Antonov, the head of the fire department, arrived, he ordered to send all available firefighters of the department to Rossiya. In the end, there were more than 150 fire-engines and about 1,400 people. But it was only in the end.

By the time when the first firefighters saw the hotel, the floors from 5th to 12th were on fire. The people on these floors were already crowding near the windows and some of them even tried to descend on bedclothes tied together but fell down. Some jumped down in desperation. The upper floors were cut away by the fire. Some people tried to run down the stairways, but most of them suffocated, collapsed and died. Many of them could survive, if they did what they were taught in school. So, one army general, whose room was in the middle of the fire, blocked all holes in the room with soaked clothes and incessantly poured water onto the door, to keep it from catching fire. A group of Japanese tourists, when they saw that the corridors were filled with smoke, lay down, covered themselves with wet clothes and waited for the rescue. The firemen worked inside the building in pairs: one went forward while the second one cooled him with a stream of water. The smoke was so thick that sometimes they could only creep.

Soon, 24 more fire-engines came to Rossiya. Most of them had the same 30 meters long ladders. In 1977 in Moscow there were only two 52 meters long ladders and one 62 meters long. Firefighter Zhuravlyov invented a new trick to reach at least six meters higher. He climbed at the top of the standard ladder with a four-meters long ladder with hooks, held it up so that the hooks caught the window frame above and the people climbed down the ladder and slipped along Zhuravlyov's body onto the main ladder. Other firefighters followed his example.

The fire was at its peak when the fire department received a new signal: the building of the newspaper Pravda was burning. General Antonov ordered to send some fire-engines from the reserve to Pravda.

When the fire in the main building finally began to calm down, the firefighters learned that the fire reached the tower and began moving upwards. The tower was where the elite apartments were located. The elevators didn't work because of the fire and the corridors were filled with smoke. One of these elite apartments was occupied by Ivanov, the vice-minister of trade of Bulgaria. He made some calls to the security service, but soon understood that the rescuers will be late. Then he called once again and asked the fire security officer: "Offer me what to choose: to die of suffocation or jump from the window?" When the firefighters finally came to his room, he and two his assistants were sitting in the arm-chairs. They died of poisoning by CO2.

The tower was beyond the reach of the ladders. The corridors and the stairways were blocked by the poisonous smoke. Some groups of the firemen were moving upwards, but too slowly. The solution was found by lieutenant Kuldin. He offered to use smaller ladders with hooks. When attached to the windows, they formed a chain that gave a dangerous, but realistic way to escape. Half an hour later, two chains of ladders reached 14th and 17th floors.

The air in the restaurant on the 21 floor was getting hot. First, an aquarium on the floor cracked and fell apart. Then, the people started to climb onto the tables to escape from the smoking floor. When two firemen who went all the way up in the gas masks appeared in the restaurant, more than 200 people imagined that the way down was free and ran to the stairways. The firemen managed to stop the panic and organized the evacuation via the chain of ladders which by that time reached the 21st floor. More than 40 people were evacuated in this way. Then the smoke slihgtly dispersed and the other people were taken down along the main stairway.

When the news of the fire reached the top leaders of Moscow and the USSR, they arrived to the hotel: the first secretary of the Moscow committee of CPSU Grishin, minister of defense Ustinov, minister of the home affairs Shchelokov, chairman of KGB Andropov and even the chairman of the cabinet of ministers Kosygin. A group of KGB security service agents came a bit earlier and began to prepare the observation point for the state leaders. Vasily Lyashchenko, who commanded the fire service operations, recalled later that at one of the most busiest moments, when he dispatched the newly arrived teams of firemen and coordinated the actions of those who were already inside the building, a group of people in civilian clothes came to him and told him: "Move away, captain, the bosses are coming." They refused to listen to his explanations. Lyashchenko asked some firemen from the reserve for help and they joined their hands and simply pushed the KGB agents away, giving to Lyashchenko the chance to keep working. The giant crowd of people who surrounded the hotel, worried the Soviet leaders. According to some rumors, one of the generals ordered a regiment of paratroopers and even a tank detachment to enter the city. Fortunately, soon the generals calmed down and cancelled the order.

By 01:30 it became clear that the fire was successfully localized. The eastern and the western wings of the building were isolated from the fire. But the fire was completely extinguished only two hours later, at 03:30.

During the fire the firemen saved more than 1,000 people. 42 people died, including 13 firemen and 5 hotel workers. 52 people were hospitalized. The big fire took more lives than any other fire in Moscow in the XX century. The officially announced cause of the fire was that the radio engineers of the hotel left a switched on welder in their room, which started the fire at 20:40. The abundance of synthetic materials helped the fire to spread with very high speed. Another way the fire spead along were the ventilation channels. Two of the engineers were sentenced to 1 and 1.5 years in prison. The third engineer committed suicide and was found dead two days later

The conclusions of the experts are often questioned by the people who insist that it was an arson. And their doubts sometimes have very serious grounds. So, the architect of the hotel Vitaly Mazurin told that the synthetic materials were carefully chosen and were not easily inflammable. So, the synthetic carpets had some holes after the fire, but there were no traces of burning. The proponents of this theory also remind that since 1967 there were more than 100 occasions of ignition in the hotel. They were localized immediately and never caused any problems. They fire has never been so fast. Vasily Lyashchenko told that the fire detectors triggered simultaneously in three places on different floors. It is not clear why the detectors did not work for the 45 minutes while the fire was still spreading (if we accept the conclusions of the experts). Vitaly Mazurin said also that the 5th and the 12th floors were almost completely destroyed, the 11th was seriously damaged, but the 10th remained almost intact. In some places Mazurin noted a strange layer of oily soot. The witnesses told that they saw small streams of liquid fire flowing on the floor and Mazurin assumed that this oily soot was what remained of the strange liquid flame. Vasily Lyashchenko also wondered why the detectors worked at one moment in different places. Another fireman, Vladimir Zaitsev, concluded: "All my earlier experience of fire-fighting makes me exclude all versions but one — arson."

On the other hand, a good proverb says: never ascribe to malice what can be explained by human stupidity. Most probably, the liquid flames and the oily substance were the remains of the burning plastic, which turned out to be inflammable, after all.

This fire was not the worst fire in the world, it was not the fire at the tallest building and it did not cause the highest number of victims. On 6 August 1970, a fire started on the 33th floor of a 50-storey building in New York. Hundreds of people were poisoned by the smoke of a burning plastic. In December 1970 the fifth floor of a 49-storey building in the centre of Manhattan caught on fire. The smoke quickly spread to the top of the building. Many people were trapped and died in elevators. About the same thing happened in 26-storey Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, where more than 80 people died (some of them jumped out of windows) and about 500 were wounded. On 25 December 1971 in Seoul a fire started in a 22-storey hotel. Once again the poisonous smoke became the cause of death of many people. The firemen tried to evacuate the people through elevators, and when it didn't work, they tried to use helicopters, but the thick smoke was an obstacle that made this plan fail. During the 1974 fire in a tall building in Saõ Paolo many people died because the evacuation plan was based on the elevators which failed in the first minutes of the fire. In this row, the fire in Rossiya where only 42 people of 5,000 died, was a relatively successful operation. One of the firemen who commanded the operation in Rossiya, said: "Much more people could have died in the fire, but relatively few did, because we significantly cut the time of the localization of the fire. During analogous operations abroad the firemen usually suppress the hearths from the ouside and only when the temperature falls they enter the building. Sincerely respecting their efforts, I'll say that we chose another tactics: we extinguished the fire from the outside and went inside in large numbers. This gave us a chance to save many people who were in hopeless situations. Of course, the risk was much higher. But it justified itself."

Some years after the fire in Rossiya, the writer Vladimir Sanin wrote the novel The Big Fire (Bolshoy pozhar), based on these events. This thrilling novel is the best book about the firemen that I have ever read. In the foreword, he wrote:

If one day you'll meet a fire-engine on the street driving fast, watch it and tell them: "Good luck, guys," I will think I didn't write The Big Fire in vain.

2 comments:

Kyle & Svet Keeton said...

That was a good article,

The chain of ladders on the out side of the tower was ingenious. Saved many lives.

Never heard of this fire, But in 1977 in America we did not hear much about the Soviet Union!

why did they close the Hotel in 2006?

Kyle

Dmitri Minaev said...

This is one of the few occasions when I agree with the decisions of the Moscow authorities :). For quite some time Rossiya was in the list of building distorting the historical landscape of Moscow. I just did not fit the place. Last time I heard, they planned to build some smaller, five to six storeys high, hotels on the place of Rossiya.