Methanol carnage grips resort town at summer's end

  • 2001-09-20
  • Christel Karits
PARNU - "The parents of my daughter's classmate were taken away by ambulance. Thank God the father is back home now and the mother is recovering in hospital," said Ilmar, a 58-year-old Parnu resident, about his friends who suffered in Estonia's ongoing methanol catastrophe. "I knew many of the victims. Some died. They weren't street punks. They were normal working people."

The local newspaper's pages are full of obituaries and condolences. The tragedy has left its touch on every corner of the town. The poisoned alcohol had taken 60 lives by the time this issue of the TBT went to press, and another 49 were still in hospital without much hope of survival. Doctors have managed to bring only a third of those hospitalized back to health.

A residential area by a former forestry near Parnu is now deserted. A grave-like silence shrouds the area as if the air itself has been wrenched of life. For those who remain, it seems hard to breathe.

Five dramatically similar apartment blocks stand in front of a clump of pines. Each of them has at least one family that unknowingly drank methanol spirit last week. They took it to be illegally distilled vodka, a common drink throughout Central and Eastern Europe, which was sold for 30 kroons ($1.76) a liter.

Five grams of methanol are enough to blind a person, while 30 grams will kill. As TBT reported last week, the first victim was found dead at 10 a.m. on Sept. 8.

The blocks' residents say that one person from the second house has died, and in the third house there's one dead and four hospitalized. The fourth house lost one and the fifth house lost two. A man named Lembit, from the first house ,is missing; his apartment is empty. The neighbors hope he is in a Tallinn hospital.

Deadly peddler

Another apartment stands empty in the fifth house. School office cleaner Ulle, who used to live there, was the supplier of illegal alcohol to the whole neighborhood. After the fatalities, neighbors disclosed her business to the police and now she sits in the town's prison.

"Who knows how much she earned on their lives," said Anneli, 32, a Parnu resident who lost her uncle. Anneli has not thought about what kind of punishment Ulle deserves. She has no time for that. She is busy arranging her uncle's funeral, ordering funeral wreaths and helping to look for her neighbors' missing relatives.

Anneli's uncle, Mihkel, was the methanol's first victim. Someone brought the malignant vodka to the block where the wheelchair-bound Mihkel lived alone. The next morning friends found him in his kitchen. Leo Parnoja, chair of the house committee, remembers: "I shook him, but he only mumbled something. We called the ambulance, which took him to hospital. Later we heard he died there."

Every day, the sound of an ambulance siren breaks the silence in the neighborhood. Most of the victims from Mihkel's neighborhood - Niina, Ain, Agu... - were hospitalized in a very poor condition.

Niina's daughter-in-law said she visited her husband's mother and spouse the night before the tragedy. "They were both very drunk, barely conscious, and my husband suggested we call an ambulance. But my mother-in-law said they drank quality vodka and even showed us the bottle she assumed it was from. We didn't argue," she said. Her husband kicked some of the other alcoholics out of Niina's house. One of them, Atsik, later died.

The doctor who came to verify Atsik's death found two more victims of methanol, a married couple, in a house nearby.

Parnoja said all of the nearby houses and blocks had "problem families" (alcoholics), and now they were all gone. He thought the reason people drank so carelessly could be their personal problems. "Most of the people who have suffered from the methanol have lost their jobs and sunk all the way to the bottom. With so many problems, they think that by getting tipsy they can improve their lives," he said.

Fight for life

According to Parnu doctors, there was no time to think about why people drank the tainted alcohol. The pressing issue is getting those intoxicated by the poison out of the jaws of death. Last week, one Parnu clinic looked like a military hospital after a heavy battle. Beds, one after the other, were full of suffering people.

In three days the number of people treated at the clinic's emergency department was equal to the number they would normally treat over two months. The personnel suddenly have 10 times more work, and some are around the clock without a proper break.

Two days into the tragedy (Sept. 9 and 10), Urmas Sule, the head doctor of the clinic, tried to send staff home to sleep. But, he said, they came back soon after, complaining it was impossible to sleep anyway because of the ambulance sirens screaming up and down the street all night long.

Most of the people who have suffered have been ordinary working folk whose income was not enough to buy legal alcohol. The first known homeless victim was the last person hospitalized, on Sept. 10.

In the first days of the tragedy, medics informed locals that an antidote for methanol was regular vodka. A minor amount of vodka, about the same as the consumed methanol dose, would ease the vision problems and sickness that follow the intoxication.

After three or four days, however, the clinic received dozens of people who had tried in vain to cure themselves with (probably too much) vodka. They were all in a "state of delirium," mostly hallucinating. Some were aggressive. Police helped to keep all the patients in the clinic as some tried to escape. Two of the intoxicated persons were later transferred to the hospital's psychiatric department.

The doctors are irritated by people who know about the numerous fatalities and injured, but continue to drink the shady alcohol anyway. Kulvar Mand, head doctor of the Parnu ambulance service, said some people just want to see what the effect is after knocking back the substance.

Most Parnu residents do not dare buy vodka at all, even in legitimate shops. Fishermen from Manija Island near Parnu who for years drank only "the white" (the folk name for vodka in Russian and Estonian) are now buying wine on their trips to the mainland.

Even Absolut, the first-class vodka product from Sweden, was untouched at one recent Parnu birthday party; the men preferred to stick to cheap champagne.

What next?

Dealers caught selling counterfeit alcohol may soon face the wrath of revenge. The men of Tali parish, not far from Parnu, are promising to give the crooks a proper lesson if they get their hands on them. The methanol took seven lives in Tali. Those still alive in hospital promise to unveil all of the many places where they bought illegal booze.

Thirteen-year-old Virge, whose father passed away in the tragedy, says the man who sold the poison to his father must go to jail. The other 17 children orphaned with the poisoning feel the same way.

Parnu is full of ordinary Estonian families destroyed by the incident. Many have lost a close friend or relative, colleague or childhood friend they last saw years ago. Some people even thank God that the catastrophe passed them by, this time. Most are demanding tough punishment for illegal alcohol sellers.

Police say they have plenty of leads regarding illegal vodka sale points, and many across the country have already been checked out. In two days last week the police seized more illegal alcohol than it normally does in six months: 12 tons of it. A dozen suspects, mostly from Parnu county, are under arrest.

But questions are still plaguing Parnu. Why didn't the police deal more actively with the problem before? What should the state (or people themselves) change if the devil of poisoned alcohol continues? And will the consumption of cheap illegal vodka finally fall in the wake of the tragedy?