Nightclub victims 'crushed'
Perm - Panicked clubgoers crushed each other to death in a popular Russian nightspot as they tried to flee a fast-moving fire that one eyewitness told The Associated Press was started by pyrotechnic fountains set up on the stage.
Officials said 103 people died when the fire tore through the popular Lame Horse nightclub in the city of Perm late on Friday, filling the crowded barracks-like building with thick black smoke. Authorities said they arrested the registered owner of the club and the manager.
Officials said the club managers ignored repeated demands from authorities to change the club's interior to comply with fire safety standards. "They have neither brains, nor conscience," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, urging a tough punishment for the culprits.
Officials said most of the dead suffocated or were crushed at the exit.
"The fire spread very quickly," said Marina Zabbarova, chief investigator for the local prosecutor's office. "Panic arose which led to a mass death of people."
News footage shot later outside the Lame Horse showed charred bodies lying in rows on the ground amid a light snowfall. Rescue workers carried bodies on stretchers into waiting vans.
Svetlana Kuvshinova, who was in the nightclub when the blaze broke out, told the AP it started after three fireworks fountains spewed sparks, igniting the plastic ceiling.
"The fire took seconds to spread," she said. "It was like a dry haystack. There was only one way out. They nearly stampeded me."
Another clubgoer said panic spread quickly through the crowd.
"There was only one exit, and people starting breaking down the doors to get out," said a woman who identified herself only as Olga, smeared with soot and wearing a filthy fur coat. "They were breaking the door and panic set in. Everything was in smoke. I couldn't see anything."
Authorities identifying bodies
A video recorded by one of the clubgoers and run by Russian television stations showed flames engulfing the ceiling decorated with willow twigs as a host shouted in a casual tone: "Ladies and Gentlemen, guests of the club, we are on fire. Please leave the hall!"
People reluctantly and slowly began heading toward the exit, some of them turning back to look at the burning ceiling, but then rushed away in panic as flames quickly spread around seconds later.
Authorities set about identifying bodies on Saturday morning, as ambulances delivered some of the more than 130 injured to planes waiting at the airport, where they were being evacuated to Moscow hospitals.
Medical authortities said nearly 90 of the injured were in critical condition.
Firefighters were on the scene in downtown Perm one minute after the alarm was called in, the Emergency Situations Ministry said, and they took less than an hour to put the fire out.
Zabbarova, the top investigator, said that there was no suspicion of a terrorist attack.
Russia has been on edge since last week's bombing of the high-speed Nevsky Express passenger train midway between Moscow and St Petersburg, which killed 27 in the first deadly terrorist attack outside Russia's restive Caucasus republics since 2004. Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for the blast.
Perm, a city of around 1 million people, is about 1 200km east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains.
Enforcement of fire safety standards is notoriously lax in Russia and there have been several catastrophic blazes at drug-treatment facilities, nursing homes, apartment buildings and nightclubs in recent years.
Medvedev, who summoned top officials to report on the fire and rescue efforts, urged changes in the law to toughen punishment for violation of fire safety standards.