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Moscow death toll soars as heat wave persists

High temperatures and smog from raging forest fires take their toll central Russia, especially in Moscow, where the normal daily death rate has doubled to 700, officials say.

August 10, 2010|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Moscow — Tatiana Dyment found her 70-year-old mother sitting in the bathtub, her head leaning sideways and cold water from the showerhead still streaming down her back.

"She could have been dead for two to three days, doctors suppose," said the psychologist, who had rushed back to Moscow from vacation in Croatia after she couldn't reach her mother by phone. "The windows in her apartment on the sixth floor were wide open and every piece of furniture in the apartment smelled of burning" from the thick white smoke hanging in the air outside.

Doctors say her mother, Tatiana Belskaya, died of "acute heart insufficiency." Dyment, 31, has her own idea of what killed her usually fit mother: "I think this smog from the forest fires killed her."

On Monday, Moscow health authorities announced that the number of deaths each day in the capital had nearly doubled to 700 as most of central Russia entered the seventh week of a heat wave. The high temperatures, hovering around 100 degrees, have destroyed 30% of the nation's grain crops and triggered massive peat bog and forest fires that alone have killed more than 50 people and devastated dozens of villages.

Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of Moscow's health department, said the city's morgues were filled almost to capacity, with 1,300 of the 1,500 slots taken. He suggested that residents, instead of following Russian Orthodox tradition of holding burials on the third day after death, bury loved ones sooner.

"We have no right to insist, as it is a sacred thing," Seltsovsky said at a news conference.

As the Rosgidromet state weather agency said Monday that air pollution exceeded its normal levels by 1.4 to 2.2 times in areas of Moscow, residents continued to flee the city. All passenger flights and long-distance trains were booked, though dozens of flights were indefinitely delayed because of the smog.

Some countries were closing their consular offices and evacuating their staff. The U.S. Embassy told The Times on Monday that work hours were being cut and time devoted to issuing visas for travel to the United States had been reduced.

On Monday, Galina Oprya buried Bronizlav Oprya, her 80-year-old husband, in their town of Istra about 30 miles northwest of Moscow. Twenty other people were buried that day at the local cemetery, the most since the days of World War II, cemetery officials told Oprya.

Her husband died Friday of pulmonary edema, according to doctors.

"My husband and I were sitting in the living room when he asked me to open the window, which I had closed because of the smog," Oprya said in a telephone interview. "It was so hot in the room that we couldn't stand it anymore."

Oprya, 62, a bookkeeper, said that for a week she had been trying to buy an air conditioner. She couldn't find even a fan.

After she opened the window, the smoke billowed into the apartment and soon her husband started coughing.

"He died in my arms in a few hours," Oprya said. "Yes, he did smoke a lot, but otherwise he was OK and I never expected him to die so fast."

Boris Revich, head of the Moscow-based Laboratory for Environmental Health, an academic research institute, was sharply critical of how Moscow officials have handled the twin crises of high temperatures and fire.

"The civilized world has already long ago formulated a list of urgent and obligatory measures to reduce heat waves' influence on people's health," he said, "from increasing the number of ambulances on duty equipped with all necessary things like bottles of mineral water, for instance, to getting lists of elderly people living alone from social organizations and checking these people out.

"None of it was done," Revich said.

He said the heat and smog were hardest on the elderly and those suffering from lung disorders. "Even after the heat is gone these people will be suffering from the consequences and we will see more and more deaths in the coming weeks," he said.

Many foreign tourists had already canceled their tours and hotel reservations. But low- and medium-priced hotel rooms don't stay empty for long; they're quickly booked by Muscovites willing to pay $100 to $200 a day for the comfort of air-conditioned rooms.

Vyacheslav Kopylov, a 32-year-old programmer, said he was lucky to get a $120 hotel room for his pregnant wife, daughter and mother-in-law before they leave for a two-week vacation to Turkey on Friday.

"I can't risk the health of my family and I am ready to pay the price," he said. "Our apartment is in downtown Moscow, but it is so hot inside that it is impossible to sleep.

"I hope the smog will go away by the time we are back from vacation and life will get back to normal," he said.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu promised Sunday that all the peat bog and forest fires would be extinguished within a week.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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