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Building Explodes in Moscow, Kills 4

August 21, 2002

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MOSCOW (AP) _ An explosion tore through a five-story apartment house in Moscow late Tuesday, killing at least four people and leveling a 45-foot-wide section of the building. Emergency officials feared up to nine people could be trapped in the wreckage.

Three bodies, one of a young girl, were pulled out of the wreckage early Wednesday, and officials earlier said another person had died. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said a gas leak was the most probable cause of the blast.

Shoigu said that four people were pulled alive from the ruins, Interfax reported. The ITAR-Tass news agency, however, said that eight people were pulled out, including a woman with burns over 80 percent of her body and three others who were seriously injured.

A spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry, Dmitry Paskevich, said a baby was among the people still missing. An emergency worker who declined to give his name said rescuers were focusing their efforts on two pockets in the wreckage where they believed survivors could be. ITAR-Tass said about 40 apartments had been destroyed.

Interfax quoted an unnamed emergency official as saying that dogs had located four more people still under the rubble. The official said there was little chance those people were still alive.

The blast completely collapsed all five stories in a 45-foot-wide section of the building, but it left apartments standing around the gap. Concrete slabs and beams _ as well as furniture, mattresses and a refrigerator _ were piled up in the middle of the building. Sniffer dogs walked over the rubble, barking occasionally.

``It was such an explosion,″ said 78-year-old resident Zinaida Burlakova, who sat outside a first aid tent. ``I thought at first it was thunder, the walls were shaking. I was afraid to go outside. Then someone came to my door and started yelling, ’Go outside!‴

Nadezhda Medvedeva was standing outside the ruins waiting for news of her friend, who lived with her family in a fourth-floor apartment that was wrecked in the blast.

``They just got back from vacation today,″ she said, adding that she had spoken to her friend less than three hours before the explosion and that she had been at home.

Medvedeva, who lives around the corner, said the blast made her windows shake.

As emergency workers used a large crane to pick through the wreckage under floodlights, the interiors of apartments were visible where the wall had come down _ revealing curtains, interior doors, carpets and other furnishings suddenly left open to the night air.

With the din of generators and trucks in the background, rescuers used heavy machinery to move large chunks of rubble, then clambered on the piles and shone flashlights down into the wreckage.

NTV reported that rescuers announced occasional five-minute periods of silence to listen for survivors under the rubble. The station said moans could be heard.

Korolyov Street, where the building is located, was packed with ambulances and fire trucks, and residents stood looking at the wreckage. The building in northern Moscow is close to the Ostankino television tower, the city’s highest structure and a Moscow landmark.

Most Russian apartments use natural gas for cooking. Leaks from aging pipes and stoves are common, killing and injuring scores of people every year.

The explosion raised fears of a terrorist attack as well. Among the officials who rushed to the scene of the explosion was Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB and the agency overseeing the conduct of the war in Chechnya.

Residents of the building said on NTV television that after the explosion they smelled gunpowder.

Three years ago, a series of apartment house explosions that authorities blamed on Chechen rebels rocked Moscow and other cities, killing about 300 people. Those blasts, which became one of the Kremlin’s arguments for sending troops back into the separatist region, severely unnerved Russians.

Kremlin spokesman Alexei Gromov said President Vladimir Putin was immediately informed about the incident, according to Interfax.

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