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Crash and Burn

Even when people die, it’s easier to blame fireworks and terrorists than to address the real problems. by Galina Stolyarova 10 December 2009

ST. PETERSBURG | Having been born into a family of engineers, I often heard yarns from my parents telling me about the fire inspectors who would come to their offices every so often to measure everything in sight. As a child, I always laughed when they told me how the fire inspector would make a fuss if the space between desks was 70 centimeters and not one meter, as required by law. It seemed so absurd that I refused to believe it.

I started working at the age of 17, at the same time as I went to university, and I have never seen a fire inspector visit any of my workplaces. What’s more, many people feel that fire inspections, along with tax and health inspections, have turned into a way of exerting pressure and only happen if the local authorities have a grudge against your company.

It is an open secret that when it comes to companies bribing their way out of a dirty kitchen, lack of fire extinguishers, or false accounting, Russia is one big pay-as-you-go deal. I can only guess how the Perm nightclub, Khromaya Loshchad (Lame Horse) – which made international news when at least 130 died and more than 100 were injured in a fire on 4 December – managed to stay open with the sort of fire safety conditions it apparently had.

perm_fire_300A grainy amateur video shows a rush of people trying to escape the smoke and fire in the Lame Horse nightclub.

I stared at the screen in disbelief as the news shows started showing reconstructions of the fire. After the club’s plastic ceiling caught fire from a misguided firework, guests struggled to find their way to the only exit through the venue’s winding corridors. It was impossible to escape through any of the Lame Horse’s tiny windows. Indeed, according to Russia’s emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, the ill-fated nightclub was ordered to pay two fines – amounting to 1,000 and 1,800 rubles ($33 and $59) – during the 2008 fire inspection. Yet, given all the club’s faults, one can only guess how on earth any fire inspection could have allowed a venue that was so vulnerable in so many ways to operate.

My surprise was even greater when I heard the Russian authorities’ response to the tragic incident. Shoigu issued a decree banning fireworks at many events until the relevant laws are improved. Regional authorities across the country are introducing similar measures. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko has introduced a ban on the use of fireworks indoors and during large-scale gatherings.

Banning fireworks is not a solution, but rather a desperate and hopeless move. It would be just as efficient to shut clubs altogether, or ban all train journeys in the hope of combating terrorism. As an old joke has it, the best remedy for a headache is a guillotine.

 “ABSOLUTELY RELIABLE”

Unfortunately, when there is a problem to solve in Russia, the guillotine principle seems to lie at the heart of the process.

A clear pattern emerges if you look into the causes of recent disasters in Russia, from fires to plane crashes to dam collapses. The circumstances may be different, but it is chaos and utter neglect of basic safety standards at all levels that lead to tragic accidents.

Even with the 27 November crash on the Nevsky Express train en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg that claimed 26 lives, and was promptly declared an act of terrorism by Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, many lives likely could have been saved if the railway authorities had paid greater attention to passenger safety.

For starters, a number of knowledgeable people have not even been convinced of the terrorism version. For example, Yevgeny Kulikov, head of the Russian Independent Labor Union of Rail Workers, is skeptical, claiming a fault on the line or train malfunction seemed more likely to him.

“The railroad officials are talking about terrorism in order to escape responsibility,” Kulikov said. “But if the train had run over a bomb, the front carriages would have been damaged. Instead, what happened was that the last carriages came off the rails. The loud sound heard by some witnesses could have just as easily been the sound of a broken rail caused by emergency braking.”

Predictably, Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, vehemently denied media reports questioning the safety of the railways and expressing doubts as to whether or not the train crash was orchestrated by terrorists. “All these so-called alternative versions sound plain stupid,” Yakunin said.

Valery Tanayev, deputy head of the Oktyabrskaya Railway and its chief safety inspector, insisted that the stretch of railway between Moscow and St. Petersburg was in perfect condition and rejected speculation that the 27 November crash could have been caused by a broken rail.

According to Tanayev, security controls maintained on the Moscow to St. Petersburg route are generally tighter that on other railway lines in Russia. “Our equipment allows controllers not only to monitor anything out of the ordinary in any part of the system, but also to identify potentially hazardous situations that could lead to an accident,” he said. “It is so sensitive that we know which lamp to replace before it burns out.”

Arguments concerning terrorism aside, from photographs of the scene and witness accounts it was obvious that in the carriages that went off the rails, seats were completely torn off during the crash. Witnesses described the seats as fragile and said the loose seats flying around the damaged carriages were a major contributing factor in the death toll and level of injuries sustained.

What brings the two tragic stories together is that they have shown yet again that in Russia safety rules are seen as a nuisance, and breaches are often solved by bribes or a blind-eye attitude. Just like the law, safety standards are not observed. And when an accident occurs, the solution normally comes in the form of a ban, rather than a coherent safety program operating under strict and transparent control.

Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.
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