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Death Toll in Russian Blast Rises to 32

Possible theft of the apartment building's gas valves and poor upkeep may be to blame.

March 17, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Police said Tuesday that they were searching for two homeless men who might have stolen gas valves from an apartment building in northern Russia, leading to a huge predawn explosion that left at least 32 people dead.

But a municipal official said the utility lines in Arkhangelsk, 600 miles north of Moscow, were so poorly maintained that simple deterioration could have caused the tragedy.

At least 11 residents remained unaccounted for, and 24 others were injured, seven critically.

The explosion occurred shortly after 3 a.m., ripping off the upper half of the building as most of its 80 residents slept. Hundreds of rescue workers plowed through a pile of rubble three stories high, pulling out survivors.

Yelena Denisova, a 37-year-old librarian who lived on the second floor, said she was asleep when the explosion occurred.

"I felt something heavy on my head," she said in a telephone interview. "My head was aching, the echo of the explosion was ringing in my ears, and I could not stir a finger because there was all this stuff on top of me.

"I could not understand what was happening to me. For the first few seconds, I even thought that I had died and this was what life after death felt like. But then I thought that since my whole body ached and I felt nauseated, this could not be the netherworld."

Authorities did not rule out a terrorist attack, especially because the building apparently housed employees and veterans of Russia's Interior Ministry, which has been a target of rebel attacks in the breakaway southern republic of Chechnya.

But a law enforcement source quoted by Itar-Tass news agency said authorities suspect that valves were removed from the gas lines by someone hoping to sell them.

"Residents of the building in which the explosion went off saw two men, most probably persons without permanent domicile, carrying tools and metal piping," the source said.

Two gas leaks possibly caused by the removal of valves were reported in neighboring apartment buildings.

Viktor Shestakov, a spokesman for the mayor's office, said the city's utility lines were in such bad repair that a gas leak could hardly be unexpected.

"There is nothing surprising that accidents like this one are beginning to happen more and more frequently. Gas lines are in slightly better condition than the water and heating mains, but the overall condition is still horrible. They have not been repaired for years," he said in an interview.

He said the collapse of the Soviet Union left cities without funds to maintain utility lines.

"It is the scourge of every city in Russia," he said. "More than half of utilities throughout Russia should have been replaced with new ones a long time ago."

A Feb. 26 gas explosion at a cafe in the Siberian town of Chita killed 18 people and injured 20.

And in Moscow on Sunday, a fire sparked by a suspected electrical fault burned down the historic Manezh building, which once housed the czar's stables, next to the Kremlin.

In Arkhangelsk, a city of 370,000 on an inlet of the Barents Sea that is Russia's oldest seaport, witnesses described a scene of confusion as they awoke to find 36 apartments gone.

Tatyana Kononova, who lives in the building next door, said the blast awakened her about 3 a.m., and almost immediately there was glass "flying through our flat like razors."

"We were looking at each other in horror, clad in our nightgowns, half asleep, paralyzed with fear and surprise," she said in an interview. "There was utter, deadly silence outside for the first few minutes. The thing that took us out of this stupor was the crying of children -- they were crying in our apartment building, and in the one that exploded.... And this is when I thought to myself that a war must have begun."

Looking out the window, she said, it was at first impossible to see through the dust. Then, light began breaking through.

"I saw that an entire section of the house was gone. It is the first time in my life that I have seen something like that -- it was just gone, as if cut off with a knife."

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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