RIGA - Latvia's notorious fire safety record made international headlines last week when a blaze ripped through the attic of a three-story convalescent home for disabled people, taking 25 lives and once again raising difficult questions about fire prevention and personal liability. The fire in Alsunga, a town in western Latvia some 15 kilometers from the Baltic coast, was triggered by either an electrical overload or someone smoking in bed.
It was quickly described as the deadliest in Latvia's history, including the interwar period, by officials from the State Fire and Rescue Service.
Details of the tragedy were harrowing, as the blaze, which apparently began in the attic was forced downward by a fireproof roof, killing nine out of 10 sleepers on the attic floor and 16 out of 25 on the second. Worse, the second-floor residents were first- and second-category invalids who were unable to move freely.
Firefighters managed to gather the remains of almost all the bodies, but given their charred, frozen condition, identification of all 25 missing persons may be impossible. Sadly, approximately a dozen of those believed to have been killed had no living relatives, which will complicate DNA-assisted identification.
In all, 88 people had been in the rest home at the time of the fire. Fifty-four were evacuated, and nine were rescued by firefighters. Five sustained injuries. Only one night worker was on duty.
By mid-week a host of questions remained unanswered, including why the attic was not equipped with smoke detectors and why a fire alarm was apparently ignored. Worse, however, was the revelation that the 10 residents in the attic should have never been allowed there.
As Jurijs Kislaks, deputy chief of the national fire service, explained, the rest home, a provincial manor built in 1890, was last inspected in March 2006. At the time the attic was not in use, nor was any construction work in progress. In the summer, however, management of the "Regi" rest home proceeded to equip the attic to accommodate additional residents, but after the repairs were completed no proper inspection was carried out.
Consequently, in the freezing temperatures the attic became particularly cold, and to stay warm the residents plugged in high-voltage space heaters. As a result, the electrical system may have overloaded, Kislaks said.
While no political fallout followed the tragedy, there were plenty of incriminations in the leadership circles, the media and the public. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga suggested that the fire could have occurred due to "the state's inefficiency," the Leta news agency reported on Feb. 27.
The president stressed that it would be wrong to blame one person for the tragedy, which was caused by a "chain of events."
The State Fire and Rescue Service said it had 10 days to complete its investigation into the fire.
Welfare Minister Dagnija Stake, who refused to resign, temporarily removed the rest home director, Irena Hartmane, on Feb. 27. The ministry said in a statement that, "as a result of I. Hartmane's unwarranted management, there was an illegal construction of attic space" where people were allowed to live despite a lack of authorization.
In the words of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, "it is not wise to leave 90 people in the care of one person when it is minus 30 degrees outside. These negligent mistakes are simply unforgivable."
Local media reported that regional prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the incident.
Regardless whether a case is opened, the tragedy in Alsunga is the best evidence that Latvia continues to struggle unsuccessfully with instilling a semblance of a civilized fire safety system. As a result, Latvia continues to have one of the highest rates of fire-related deaths in Europe.
Inga Vetere, a spokeswoman at the fire service, said that 235 people died in both 2005 and 2006 (for a total 470) due to smoke and fire. In 2004, the number was 195, pointing to an upward trend. This breaks down to 10 fire-related deaths per 100,000 residents, one of the worst track records in the world.
According to the World Health Organization, from 1993 's 2001 Latvia consistently ranked as one of the two deadliest countries in Eastern Europe in terms of fire. Oddly enough, the only country with a worse track record was Estonia.
By comparison, in the Czech Republic, the number of fire-related deaths per 100,000 people in the 1990's was slightly over one, according to WHO data.
Latvian media, and society as well, are often quick to pin the blame on the unprofessional level of firefighting. This friction was crystallized after the harrowing fire in Riga in January 2006 that took the lives of four family members.
The family's apartment on the eighth floor of a residential building had caught fire, forcing the five members to flee to the balcony. According to eyewitness reports, after firefighters arrived they extended their ladder to the wrong side of the building, and the family, no longer able to tolerate the heat and flames, jumped to its death. Only a boy survived.
The tragedy so touched Latvian society that Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis felt compelled to chair an investigative panel into the incident.
At the same time Latvians are infamously negligent with fire. Every spring hundreds of farmers burn their dry grass 's a practice known as "kula" in Latvian 's which in turns leads to forest fires and death. Last year six people died as a result of "kula" fires, Vetere said.
In February 2006, four family members died after having refused to leave a burning house against firefighters' advice. They were later found dead due to smoke inhalation.
Indeed, as Vike-Freiberga suggested, putting the blame solely on the shoulders of firefighters would be missing the point. As she said this week, "We have too many fires and too many people dying in fires."