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The day of “Leningrad’s” saviors. Special report marking 25 years since hotel fire

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On February 23rd the country celebrates men’s main holiday – the Day of Motherland’s Defenders. But for many, this date will be etched in their memories as a tragic one.

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25 years ago, a terrible blaze at “Leningrad” hotel claimed 16 lives, including 9 firefighters who died on duty. Even quarter of a century on, the debate on causes of that tragedy still rages on. Versions and recollections of witnesses – in Alexey Zhukov’s special report.

- Someone shouted – we’re on fire! After that they hung up – seemingly they were in a very tight spot over there

On February 23rd 1991 Svetlana Sattarova, sitting on this very spot, received one of the most terrifying calls in her life. At 8 am, on a designated line, she was told that hotel “Leningrad” was on fire. Firemen on duty had minutes till the end of their shifts – and they were getting ready to celebrate the holiday. They thought it would be a quick job – but once they saw the fire they knew that the challenge will be extremely difficult

Valeriy Yankovich, head of fire brigade 21 in 1991: “What we saw struck our imagination. The fire was coming out from the windows in the front, on the sides and smoke was heavy on the right side. It was around 9.30 am when the fire hose nozzle wasn’t yet installed”

Requiem by fire. The “Soviet Russia” came out with such headline several days later. The fire was covered by most of the world’s news agencies at that time. The entire 7th floor was filled with smoke and fire. Tongues of flame switched to other floors. People blocked in their rooms waved white blankets out of their windows. The 11th fire brigade was the first to respond to the blaze.

Svetlana Sattarova, radio operator at 11th fire brigade in 1991: “We immediately felt something bad was going on. As soon as chief of the brigade reached the site, he reported that people were asking for help. And then they went in to investigate and I didn’t hear from them ever since”

Fire brigades were called on the radio, tried to reach them over the phones, but the last record is marked at 8.03am – “went to attend to the fire at “Leningrad” hotel”. All of them died. For 25 years, their names have been daily put on a roster of “eternal shift”

Survivors say – this wasn’t the most terrible fire, but no one has ever encountered a trap like this. The first responders were met by a policeman on duty. Based on his instructions, disregarding protocol, firefighters went to the burning floor on the elevator. Automated safety system didn’t switch on immediately.

Alexander Mironenkov, former head of 7th brigade: “I know that a fireman from my brigade and the policemen took the elevator to the 7th floor without a gas mask. It meant that things weren’t so bad, but there was a need to evacuate people.”

Vladlen Shulimov, firefighter who participated in the operation: “The door opened and we saw thick smoke, black smoke. I shouted to the boys – press the down button, but the elevator didn’t move. Just stayed there. The door opened, and the flame engulfed the entire corridor”

In the first hour, not a single firefighter managed to reach the burning room. Vladlen Shumilov couldn’t make it from the elevator. Others escaped through the windows, some of them fell.

Alexey Zhukov, reporter: “The 7th floor of hotel “St. Petersburg”, it was called “Leningrad” back in 1991. Up until recently, this floor and two top floors were closed for visitors. These walls were still black. The renovation finished a little more than a year ago, the position of rooms changed. But the one where the horrible fire started is still in the same spot. Today it’s a modern room with a modern TV set. 25 years ago, on this spot, there was a black-and-white Rubin B312. According to the official version, it caused the short circuit which led to the fire killing 16 people”

But this is the official version. The fire was investigated by an entire commission, but years on its outcomes are still placed into doubt. Today, version of arson is being sounded out more and more often. The arrested Ayrat Gymranov, member of Yuriy Shutov’s gang, claimed that the hotel was set on fire to distract the authorities from the assassination of Mark Grigoryev, journalist of Ogonek Magazine, whose body was found in one of the rooms. That statement was ignored. And those who were there still doubt that it was caused by a short circuit.

Svetlana Sattarova, radio operator at 11th fire brigade in 1991: “Say whatever you want, but he had what I thought was a bullet hole in his temple. Some say I imagined it, but I saw it – and it wasn’t a burn mark A round spot, the size of a coin”

Valeriy Yankovich, head of fire brigade 21 in 1991: “A fire like that – from a short circuit? From a television set, as they say? No way, it’s unreal”

It later emerged – fire escapes where closed, ventilation was not suited for draining out smoke, carpets were cleaned with flammable detergent just the night before the tragedy.

Eventually, the hotel which lit up like a match almost became the subject of an international scandal. The fire killed Martinez Pasqual, a US diplomat, and Lennart Tollen – a Swedish actor. And almost killed another dozen guests of the hotel. But what was really important was that firefighters managed to save more than 200 people, at the cost of their own lives. In three days, no one would discuss legends and rumors. The bell at the commemorative monument will toll in silence. 

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