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Fire Engulfs Russian Landmark

The blaze at the massive 1817 Manezh exhibition hall, next to the Kremlin, is called the biggest in Moscow in a century.

March 15, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A landmark exhibition hall adjacent to the Kremlin was destroyed in a massive blaze Sunday night that took the lives of two firefighters, authorities said.

The fire at the Manezh, which was built in 1817 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Russia's victory over Napoleon, was discovered minutes after polls closed in Russia's presidential election.

More than 100 fire engines and 500 personnel were mobilized to fight the blaze, which the Russian news agency Itar-Tass said was Moscow's biggest in a century.

In the 19th century, the multistory wooden building was used for horseback riding, including military parades and equestrian training. An entire cavalry regiment could fit inside, Russia's NTV television said.

The spectacular wind-fanned inferno sent 150-foot flames into the sky near the red walls of the Kremlin and scattered ash across the city for at least several miles. A tall crane could be seen sending a stream of water down onto the building shortly before midnight, after its roof had collapsed.

At one point, the flames reached the edge of the neighboring Okhotny Ryad shopping center, a modern Moscow landmark, Itar-Tass said.

The event disrupted television coverage of President Vladimir V. Putin's landslide reelection victory, with stations cutting between reporting the vote count and showing footage of the blaze, including views of the Kremlin with the fire visible on its far side.

Shortly before midnight, Emergencies Minister Sergei K. Shoigu told reporters that crews were struggling to prevent the fire from jumping across a narrow street to a building in the downtown historical compound of Moscow State University. The school's main campus is on Moscow's outskirts.

"All the necessary forces are here. All the necessary equipment is here. Everything is here," Shoigu said. "But it is difficult with [old] structures like this."

The fire apparently never seriously threatened the Kremlin. But it was close enough that the Russian news agency Interfax reported with relief, shortly after midnight, that the plumes of flame were smaller and the blaze was unlikely to spread to the nearest Kremlin tower.

By early today, the effort to contain the blaze appeared to have been successful.

Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov told reporters the Manezh would be rebuilt. For the last four years, he has advocated major reconstruction of the hall, possibly to include an underground parking garage.

Authorities said they believed the fire was caused either by a short circuit or by welding work done Sunday. The Moscow prosecutor's office opened an investigation into suspected criminal negligence. Luzhkov said arson was not suspected.

Security guards were inside when the fire broke out but were safely evacuated. The firefighters who died were in the attic when it collapsed, Itar-Tass reported. A third firefighter was hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation.

Because the fire began in the attic or roof, the building's occupants were not immediately aware of it, and it was first reported by a police officer who saw it from the street, Interfax reported.

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