Tallinn: The small Baltic nation of Estonia reeled on Sunday after 10 children perished in a fire that swept through a home for disabled youngsters, most of the residents of which were orphans.
"Today's tragedy in Haapsalu has shocked the whole of Estonia," President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in a statement after news emerged of the grim toll in the northwestern town, scene of the nation's deadliest care-home fire in more than a decade.
"We all share the mourning of the families and relatives of the victims and extend our condolences. Words are a feeble way to give solace, but let us offer support to those whom this dreadful accident has affected," Ilves said.
Earlier on Sunday, Local Governor Neeme Suur told reporters that the final toll appeared to have reached 10, all of them children. Two adult care-workers were taken to hospital, but their lives were not in danger.
There were a reported 37 children and nine adults in the one-storey wooden building when the fire broke out.
"The fire started when the children were having their regular afternoon nap," Social Affairs Minister Hanno Pevkur told reporters after rushing to the town of 12,000, which lies 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of the capital Tallinn.
"The fire safety and alarm systems at the home were last controlled in January 2011," he added.
No details of the victims' ages or identities were revealed, but according to the orphanage's website, the home was for youngsters aged under 18.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official said that the youngest victim may have been only four years old.
The daily newspaper Paevaleht said hard questions would have to be answered. "Fire safety in Estonian social service homes is bad," it headlined on its website.
The highest toll to date in a care-home fire in Estonia had been in April 1997, when eight elderly disabled women died in Halinga, a western village.
Eight men died in a February 1996 fire at a facility for the mentally ill in Tallinn.
Estonia's worst recent tragedy involving children was in October 1996, when eight were killed when a truck hit their schoolbus.
Firefighters were called out to the Haapsalu home at 2:30 pm (1230 GMT), and took two hours to control the blaze.
"When the emergency services arrived at the scene, the wooden building was in flames," said rescue chief Priit Laos. "The building has partly been destroyed, and there is fire and soot damage throughout it. The orphans have been taken to a hostel for the homeless."
After the fire, locals flocked to help in the salvage operation.
According to the home's website, a total of 47 youngsters lived there, with 28 of them orphans or abandoned children, and the rest of whose parents could not care for them. All were severely disabled and most used wheelchairs.
"A criminal investigation over the fire has been launched," said Erkki Koort, a senior interior ministry official. That did not imply that authorities suspected foul play, however, because such a probe is automatic after a fire.
The Estonian government declared a day of mourning for the victims on Monday, with flags to fly at half-mast across the nation of 1.3 million.
"Sunday turned suddenly into a black day when we learned that so many innocent children perished in an orphanage. A home that is supposed to be secure took the lives of those kids," Speaker of Parliament Ene Ergma said in a statement.
"Our hearts are broken for the kids, and our deep condolences go out to all the loved ones of those who perished," she added.
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip held a telephone conference with his cabinet Sunday, ahead of a sitting Monday where the interior and social affairs ministers will report on the tragedy, government spokeswoman Liina Kersna said.
First Published: Monday, February 21, 2011, 09:35