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Russia Mourns Victims of Nightclub Fire


The accident has sparked allegations of corrupt oversight of national safety standards.

Russia is marking a day of mourning for victims of Saturday's nightclub fire in the city of Perm. The accident has sparked allegations of corrupt oversight of national safety standards.

Flags throughout Russia are at half mast by order of President Dmitri Medvedev. Churches, mosques and synagogues are conducting memorial services. Major TV channels have suspended entertainment programming. In the city of Perm, the area around the Lame Horse nightclub where the tragedy occurred is strewn with flowers left by local residents shaken by the loss of so many of their own.

At a memorial service at Perm's Holy Trinity Cathedral, Archpriest Alexander Marchenko prayed for those who perished and for a speedy recovery of the injured.

Marchenko says those who departed this life were young, energetic people who planned to accomplish much, and were not at all ready for their time of death.

Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation. As the day of mourning got underway, the official death toll was 112. By noon another victim passed away. Officials say fatalities could mount as the most seriously injured succumb to severe burns.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says the Health Ministry has the medications needed to help victims, but if more are needed, he authorized purchase regardless of cost.

Perm is an industrial city of just under one-million people about 1,200 kilometers east of Moscow.

A video of the fire shows a happy celebration of the nightclub's eighth anniversary that quickly turned into panic as the crowd sought to escape smoke and flames that spread after fountain-type fireworks ignited a plastic ceiling.

A federal criminal investigation into the tragedy is underway. The Prosecutor's Office is questioning hundreds of witnesses. Authorities have also arrested two club managers, its art director, an entrepreneur who allegedly set up the fireworks display, and a man said to be the owner, Anatoly Zak.

But Zak's attorney says his client was merely a friend of the club director and did not help organize the fireworks display.

Russia's Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu says fire safety inspectors had cited the club for violations twice in the past year, resulting in fines of $60 and $35.

Some Russian newspapers are alleging that fire inspectors can be easily bribed to overlook safety hazards. Columnist Alexander Minkin, of the Moskovskiy Komsomolets daily, told VOA that Russia's inspection system is riddled with corruption.

Minkin says if firefighters followed the law they would close businesses that violate every possible standard. He says inspectors arrive, notice a violation, but allow the business to remain open for a bribe. Unfortunately, says Minkin, firefighters have an interest in violations, because if there were not any, where would they get bribes?

Minkin cites a radio poll taken Monday in which 87 percent of listeners who responded blame corrupt bureaucrats, rather than businessmen, for unsafe public venues. He notes earlier fires at Russian discothèques and old-age homes and cautions that lax oversight could result in similar tragedies during upcoming New Year celebrations.