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Safety lapses increased fire tower damage

BUREAUCRACY, POOR maintenance and inadequate fire precautions are all thought to have contributed to the deaths of four people in Moscow's 540m high Ostankino television tower last month, when a small electrical fire developed into a 26 hour inferno.

Firefighters arrived at the scene just 10 minutes after fire broke out high up the 33 year old structure at 3pm on 27 August.

But they had to wait three hours before Russian president Vladimir Putin gave permission to turn off the tower's power supply - even though safety regulations call for immediate shut-off.

The delay proved fatal. Even though the fire started in a service level 375m above ground, poor quality cable insulation, lack of fire stops and the failure of automatic fire systems quickly allowed it to spread downward. It engulfed the rotating restaurant and observation decks before it was finally extinguished 117m above ground level.

'If we had cut the power earlier, we would probably have been able to localise the fire, ' said fire chief Leonid Kortchik. Instead, firefighters were forced to try to contain the fire and evacuate visitors while the power remained on.

Equipped only with carbon dioxide handheld extinguishers, the firefighters raced up 300m flights of narrow stairs to reach the fire - running into plumes of toxic smoke.

The length of the stairs and lack of a fire service lift caused one fireman to breach safety regulations and use one of the high speed passenger lifts. He was one of the four people who died when the lift's automatic safety devices halted it at the 300m level.

Firefighters placed two makeshift asbestos fire stops at 117m and 63m, and aimed high pressure gas extinguishers at the flames. Eventually, the fire was put out on 5.40pm on 28 August, the day after it started.

Thousands of Muscovites gathered at the site to watch the blaze. They were not allowed within 700m of the tower, amid fears that the 150m steel spire would topple. Initial Russian media reports said that the Ostankino spire was listing 19degrees.

But local surveyors who monitored it estimated the deviation was less than 1degrees from the vertical.

The extent of structural damage to the post-tensioned concrete main tower is as yet unknown, but senior engineer Tom Lennon of building research body BRE said: 'If the heat was enough to destroy lifts, then it was certainly enough to cause severe localised damage to the concrete structure.'

Spokesmen from Russia's State Construction Committee, Gosstroi, said that the tower 'can and must be repaired'. This is despite reports that up to half the 149 exposed prestressing cables on the inside of the circular section tower have been damaged.

Russian civil engineers are certain, however, that these are only present to protect against wind loading.

'For the tower to fall, even with all the prestress cables loosened, the wind would have to be 100m/s, ' one Moscow University structural engineering professor was reported as saying.

Gosstroi told NCEI that results from laboratory tests would confirm the extent of structural damage.

Meanwhile Putin told the Russian media that full restoration of the tower would be completed in six weeks.

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