PERM, Russia (Reuters) - At least 109 people were killed and 134 injured when a blaze ignited by fireworks ripped through a packed Russian nightclub, starting a stampede as revelers rushed to escape clouds of toxic black smoke.
The pyrotechnics show went wrong at the Lame Horse nightclub in the Russian city of Perm on Friday night when sparks set fire to wicker coverings on the walls and ceiling during a party celebrating the club’s eighth anniversary.
As partygoers rushed for the only door, scores were choked or crushed to death. Medics said many of those hospitalized were being kept alive with respirators and that some had burns of more than 60 percent.
Some of the severely injured have been sent to specialist burn units in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities.
A clubber who survived, identifying herself as Svetlana, told Reuters: “Everything was catching fire so quickly as if it was made of hay, it happened in seconds. We could not all get through, everyone was pushing, from all sides.”
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a national day of mourning for Monday and demanded tough punishment for the owners of the nightclub, who he said had repeatedly ignored warnings from fire inspectors that the premises were unsafe.
“They have neither brains nor conscience,” Medvedev told ministers in a televised meeting, criticizing the club’s owners for failing to come forward immediately after the disaster.
A Reuters photographer in Perm, 1,150 km (720 miles) northeast of Moscow, saw groups of distraught people visit a morgue to identify victims. Others, some weeping or smoking, stared blankly at the lists of the dead.
According to the Emergencies Ministry, the oldest fatality was 44-years-old and the youngest just 21.
Hundreds of red carnations and candles have been placed outside the club.
Friday’s fire was Russia’s most deadly in decades, emergency officials said, and the worst nightclub fire worldwide since nearly 200 people died at a party in Buenos Aires in 2004.
“This is not a premeditated murder, but this does not lessen the gravity of the crime,” Medvedev said.
Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev told Medvedev there was no evidence of a bomb. Russian prosecutors said five employees, including the club’s owner and founders, had been detained in on suspicion of breaching fire regulations and manslaughter.
A Perm resident watching firemen pull burned people out of the club said corruption was to blame.
“As always in Russia, there is irresponsibility and bribery,” said the local, who only gave his first name, Oleg.
“We need to find the fire inspector who gave permission to this club and why he allowed it,” he said.
Video footage of the disaster showed a merry crowd celebrating when a presenter suddenly announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are on fire. Leave the hall. Line up in a queue.”
Then the camera shows fire roaring along the wicker-covered ceiling of the 500 square meter (5400 square ft) club. Many revelers slowly moved to a narrow exit — some still sipping cocktails and smoking.
A few moments later, a stampede broke out as heavy black smoke quickly filled the hall and the crowd of more than 200 guests rushed headlong trying to escape.
Immediately after the fire, dozens of charred bodies were piled on the pavement outside the club as medics moved the injured into ambulances.
Blood-covered women in evening clothes and knee-high black boots lay on stretchers.
Russian officials have in the past blamed poor fire safety standards for high death tolls in fires at orphanages, hospitals and other institutions. More than 15,000 Russians died last years in fires, according to government figures.
The Kremlin said the December 7 day of mourning in Russia will have flags at half-mast across the nation. Three days of mourning will be observed in Perm, which is Russia’s sixth largest city with a population of 1.2 million..
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Angus MacSwan