- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

MOSCOW (AP) — A huge fire erupted last night in a 19th-century landmark building off Red Square, just minutes after polls closed in Russia’s presidential election. Two firefighters were killed.

Within an hour after the fire broke out, about half of the 48,000-square-foot structure was in flames and part of the roof had collapsed, news reports said. Flames shot high into the sky and thick, gray smoke billowed over the Kremlin towers.

The colonnaded building, which serves as an exhibition center, was once an equestrian training hall that opened in 1817. It is close to the Kremlin and houses frequent exhibitions and trade fairs.

The two firefighters who died were in the building’s attic when it fell in, the Itar-Tass news agency said, citing city fire-service spokesman Yevgeny Bobylev. A third firefighter was injured inhaling poisonous fumes, said Viktor Beltsov, spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Moscow emergency officials said they did not know what caused the fire, which apparently started on the intricately designed roof. They said the blaze was categorized as most serious.

News agencies quoted unidentified sources in the ministry as saying that the cause was probably a short circuit, while the Interfax news agency reported that welders had worked on the roof earlier yesterday.

Wind carried sparks from the fire across the wide avenue running alongside the building known as the Manezh, and the heat of the fire shattered windows in a nearby building, Itar-Tass reported.

The burned structure is near an underground shopping mall where an August 1999 bombing killed one person and injured dozens.

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