AFTERMATH: The worst of the fires, in Vilnius' Zirmunai district, killed five people, injured more than a dozen and left 40 families homeless.
VILNIUS/TALLINN - Barely two weeks after 25 people were killed in Latvia's deadliest fire on record, its neighbors Lithuania and Estonia shared a similar fate, suffering a week of fire-related tragedies that claimed a total of 13 lives. In Vilnius, seven people 's including a former member of parliament 's were killed, and more than a dozen were injured in two fires that broke out during what was meant to be a celebratory weekend marking the 17th anniversary of the country's independence from the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, firefighters in Estonia believe careless smoking and an unattended open fire may have been responsible for one of two separate house fires that killed six people, including a three-year-old, in that country on March 8 and 9.
The most serious of the fires broke out on the morning of March 11 in a nine-story residential house in the Zirmunai area, not far from the center of Vilnius.
The fire started in one apartment and soon spread to four other units on the sixth floor. The blaze went unnoticed and had spread to the building's other floors before firefighters appe-ared, the Vilnius firehouse later reported.
"It was not the sound of breaking glass or sirens of fire-engines that woke me up. It was the screams of people who could not escape the fire," Jelena Gembickaja, one of the residents of the building, told the Lietuvos Rytas daily.
"The screams were horrible and desperate. I am likely to remember them all my life," she said.
Gembickaja and her daughter escaped the fire because their flat was on the first floor.
But Petras Sakalinis, 58, a former member of the Lithuanian parliament, and four others weren't as lucky. Sakalinis was found dead after the fire 's he had died of carbon inhalation, according to a preliminary examination.
The other four victims included two young artists 's blind musician and painter Remigijus Audiejaitis and poet Mantas Gimzauskas. Both died after jumping from the sixth floor in an attempt to escape the blaze.
As of March 13, more than a dozen people remained in hospitals, including two children under three years old.
"I do not remember such a disaster in Vilnius," Gedas Rupsys, deputy director of the Vilnius Fire and Rescue Department, told The Baltic Times.
"However, the outcome could have been even more tragic if police and firefighters were not so fast," he added.
Rupsys also said that firefighters could have saved even more people if their engines had reached the house immediately, but the road to the house was blocked by parked cars.
"The fire-escape ladder was ready five minutes after the moment those two men jumped from the sixth floor. If our people hadn't been forced to move the cars out of the way, those two would likely be alive today," Rupsys said.
Rupsys also said that the building's emergency exits were blocked and not available for use. "People do not care about such things until they realize that it may save their lives," he said.
The blaze also left some 40 families homeless. The city has offered them municipal flats and cheap hotels for temporary residence.
The second Vilnius fire took place in a six-story residential building in the Naujamiestis district, near the city's airport, on the morning of March 12. Though it spread to only two floors of the building and was quickly extinguished, it left two people dead and three hospitalized with smoke inhalation.
Preliminary information suggests that negligence may have been the cause of at least one of the two fires in Estonia.
In the early hours of March 9, three people aged between 47 and 50 were killed in their home in the village of Munsi, near Viljandi. Fire crews arrived to find the building 's a former community culture center which had been converted to apartments 's fully ablaze.
A spokeswoman said the careless use of an open fire and smoking were considered the most likely causes of the blaze.
A similar fire took place only twelve hours prior in a house on the outskirts of Tallinn. Two adults and a child were trapped as their one-story wooden house caught fire. Fire crews found the bodies of a child, aged 3 years old, and his 51-year-old grandmother and 83-year old great grandfather.
An investigation into that fire is continuing.
Estonia is already suffering from a horrific death toll from fires this year, with 40 people killed to date.