Drowned in darkness, workers frantically fumbled for exit

Of the eight victims in Auvere power plant accident, most are already recovering from physical injuries but are still in shock over the Tuesday tragedy. Three men with serious respiratory and lung damages are still kept in artificial coma by doctors at Narva hospital.

««Run!» shouted somebody and the next moment the room got filled with grey soot so nothing could be see, not even the hand I lifted to my nose,» said Stepan, a turner working at Auvere power plant construction. «I panicked and yelled «Help!» as I begun to move towards the stairs where I remembered these to be.»

Having been working at about the height of the third floor of an apartment house, Stepan found the stairs and, in pitch dark, started to make his decent. Once on the floor, he discovered that in the thickness of the soot settling at the bottom of the building he’d not find the exit.

«That was the moment most terrible, again I yelled «Help!» and begun to climb back up – knowing that there was another door up there which might be the way out,» recalls Stepan while recovering at traumatology department of  Narva hospital. «I knew the tanks were filled with soot, tonnes of it.»

Accompanying Stepan was his boss who’d been at the site for just a few days. Together, the men fumbled their way to the door, managed to open it and exited to the fresh air on the fire staircase platform. From below, men climbed up to meet them and carried both down. How long it all took the man cannot assess – it all happened within minutes.

At about the same time, a welder called Sergei made it outside. He had run downstairs and broken out through the door below.

«This is the most terrible thing that has ever happened in my life,» said Sergei, sharing the hospital ward with Stepan and another victim. Sergei did wear the welder’s mask at the time of the accident, but he promptly pushed it aside. «It didn’t help, on the contrary,» he explained.

Stepan thinks his face and lungs were protected by the balaclava that covered the entire face except for his eyes. Both men had basically their eyes damaged, but by yesterday it was okay more or less. As for the third fellow in the ward, his eyes were still like panda bear’s – skin swollen around them, and red. Obviously in shock, the man did not want to tell his story. 

First thing, men that came running from other objects brought them water to rinse the eyes. When ambulances arrived from Narva and Sillamäe, the vital oxygen was provided. The first Auvere victims made it to the hospital an hour and 20 minutes after the accident was announced.

«The men were conscious and grey all over, covered in soot – in the clothes they’d been working in,» said Narva hospital intensive care senior doctor Aleksandr Tšernjonok, as he recalled the men brought by ambulances.  

In the words of Mr Tšernjonok, getting covered with soot is like being drowned. «They had nothing to breathe and just like water gets into the lungs of one drowning and they can no longer breathe, these had soot getting into their respiratory tracts and lungs,» said the doctor. «What matters most is to get out into the fresh air as fast as possible, in such instances. Luckily, these men did.»

As for the eye damage, the doctors compared it to getting sand in one’s eye. «One can’t open the eyes as it hurts,» described Mr Tšernjonok. Though the soot was warm, the doc said it was probably not over 60 degrees [Celsius] so there are no serious burns.

The physicians decided to take the three worst-affected men – one being the boss of Sergei and Stepan – into artificial coma to rinse their respiratory tracts and lungs from soot. «Do what you got to do, but do it fast,» Mr Tšernjonok recalls the men’s reaction as they were explained the need to take them into artificial breathing i.e. coma.

«The soot contained light cement which had got stuck to the walls of the lungs,» specified the doctor, but promised to get even this off while rinsing.

Yesterday, the men were still being kept in artificial coma, but the doctor said they all were in a stable condition 24 hours after the accident and had not become worse. According to the doctor, top priority now is the danger of infection and the men’s condition is being carefully monitored. Even so, he believes the med will be completely healed. The doctor detected no threat to the men’s lives.

«We have consulted the doctors in Tartu, we do have everything we need in Narva to threat the men,» added Mr Tšernjonok.

Sergei and Stepan hope to get home today or tomorrow. On the very day of the accident, two victims could go home – the ones who went to help guys caught under the soot.

Why one of the three soot tanks had its door swing open, causing the accident, the victims could not tell, having no direct contact with the construction thereof in their work. Also, the investigators were still unable to access the sit yesterday.

«It’s two and half meters of soot down there, and before it is pumped out we cannot do anything there,» labour Inspectorate investigator Tiit Tabor said last night. «We have agreed with the police we will drive to Auvere as soon as we can get into the building,» said Mr Tabor.