- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

MOSCOW Fire spread relentlessly through the Ostankino television tower, the world's second-tallest free-standing structure, and blazed into the early morning today as hopes faded for four persons believed trapped in an elevator hundreds of feet above the ground.

More than 12 hours after the fire broke out in the upper reaches of the 1,771-foot futuristic tower, flames and smoke had spread down to about 380 feet above the base. Firefighters were unable to work above that level because of searing heat and heavy smoke, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

No deaths or injuries were reported. But fire department spokesman Nikolai Sarychev said last night that three firefighters and an elevator operator were believed to be trapped in a lift that was stuck at about 860 feet far higher than the level where work reportedly was stopped early today.

The fire cut almost all television service in Moscow. The ITAR-Tass news agency also reported that several government workers at the tower had not been heard from since the fire started.

Moscow's 33-year-old tower a futuristic needle on a flaring base that resembles the flames of a launching rocket was a source of pride for many in the shabby city. Only the CN tower in Toronto is taller among the world's free-standing structures.

But the Russian tower's great height also made it extraordinarily trying for firefighters, who had to climb dozens of flights of stairs while weighed down with heavy protective clothing and hauling extinguishers and other gear. Into the night, dozens of tired, smoke-stained firefighters in heavy rubber coats sat on the grass around the tower.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known, but initial reports said it apparently was started by a short circuit in equipment belonging to a paging company.

When the blaze broke out about 3:30 p.m. yesterday, visitors to the popular Russian tourist attraction were evacuated from the observation deck and restaurant that perch about two-thirds of the way up the tower.

The fire started well above that level but spread to the restaurant and below as well as farther up the tower's spire. Yellow flames licked out and smoke billowed from much of the tower, which looms over a large park.

Thousands of people thronged to the base of the tower, gathering in a carnival atmosphere, drinking beer and laughing. A few danced to music from transistor radios. But the crowds later were pushed back by police, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was quoted by the news agency Interfax as saying civilians would be cleared from a 1,600-foot radius around the tower.

Concerns were rising that the intense heat of the long-lasting fire could cause structural weaknesses in the tower. Mr. Luzhkov, though, was quoted as saying the danger of it falling "practically does not exist."

The fire came on the heels of the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk with 118 men aboard, underlining the chain of disasters that have wracked Russia in recent years as its infrastructure crumbles because of lack of money. It also follows this month's bombing of a busy underground passage in Moscow that killed 12 people.

The fire caused most television service to the capital and its surrounding region to go off the air, including the three major channels, NTV, RTR and ORT, and several smaller channels. NTV later was able to broadcast its news programs via a UHF channel unaffected by the fire.

Residents of other parts of the country reported they were receiving all channels as usual. It was not clear how long channels might be off the air or whether sufficient backup equipment was available.

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