- Associated Press - Sunday, February 20, 2011

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A fire raced through an orphanage for disabled children in western Estonia on Sunday, killing 10 of them, a rescue service spokesman said.

There were 37 children and nine adults inside the wooden building when the fire started at 2:30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EST) in the coastal town of Haapsalu, said Viktor Saaremets, a spokesman for the Western Estonia Rescue Services Center.

“By the time rescue workers and firefighters arrived at the scene three or four minutes later, the building was completely in flames,” he said.

Ten children were killed, and one adult was injured, Mr. Saaremets said. Most of the victims were wheelchair-bound and were unable to escape the rapidly spreading fire, he said.

The others were evacuated to a nearby building and were not hurt, Mr. Saaremets said.

The cause of the fire was not immediately clear.

“Fire safety inspectors went there in January and found that the building met all the necessary criteria,” Mr. Saaremets said.

Estonian newspaper Postimees showed pictures on its website of flames tearing into a one-story wooden building. Victims were carried out from a window as thick smoke billowed from the roof.

The Estonian government met for an emergency meeting after the blaze and declared Monday a nationwide day of mourning.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed his condolences.

“The tragic accident in the Haapsalu orphanage shocked the whole of Estonia today,” Mr. Ilves said in a brief statement.

Local officials in Haapsalu told Estonian media that the number of victims was unlikely to rise.

The Haapsalu orphanage was opened as a home for disabled children in 1950, when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, according to its website. In 1996 it moved into the current building, which was funded by the Estonian government as well as Swedish, Finnish and U.S. donors.

Lars Nexe, a Swedish philanthropist who led the project, said the construction material was shipped from Sweden and that the building met Swedish safety standards.

Mr. Nexe said the home admits disabled children and teenagers from all over Estonia, nearly all of them orphans.

“The section that burned down completely was the section with the most severely handicapped children,” he said.

Associated Press writers Paul O’Mahony and Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.

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