Blaze in Moscow embassy damages top-secret areas

March 29, 1991|By Esther B. Fein | Esther B. Fein,New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- A fire raged through the U.S. Embassy here yesterday, severely damaging top-security work areas and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of employees from the dilapidated building.

Soviet firefighters, responding to a call from the embassy about 10:15 a.m., spent more than six hours fighting the flames, which engulfed the attic of the 10-story building and demolished the roof.

Nobody was seriously injured in the fire, which apparently began accidentally in an elevator shaft constructed on the outside of the building as part of a major renovation project, according to an embassy spokesman, James Bullock.

One Soviet firefighter and one Marine guard suffered smoke inhalation and were treated at the scene.

The top floors of the building, located less than a mile from the Kremlin on Moscow's main ring road, are believed to be where the most classified political work is carried out, and on one of them there is a secure, microphone-proof "bubble" for sensitive discussions, although the embassy does not reveal its precise work layout for security reasons.

The old embassy building, called a firetrap by those who work in it and labeled "unsafe" by visiting members of Congress, has been severely overcrowded as officials in Washington decide what to do with the new embassy office building that was built but never occupied because it was found to have been loaded with listening devices when it was built by Soviet workers.

Mr. Bullock said officials were hopeful that embassy security was not breached yesterday, despite the fact that Soviet firemen were working throughout the building.

"At this time, we have no indication of any significant activity that would have compromised security," Mr. Bullock said. "We would prefer to have the results of the damage assessment in hand before offering firm judgment."

He said Marine guards escorted the Soviet firefighters around the embassy yesterday to help them through the mazelike building, to unlock doors and to otherwise assist them in fighting the fire.

When an earlier fire devastated the embassy in 1977, Ambassador Malcom Toon delayed giving Soviet firemen access to the building so that embassy officials could protect or remove confidential documents and security equipment.

Later reports indicated that despite such precautions, KGB security personnel infiltrated classified areas, seriously compromising embassy security.

A small fire in 1988 was confined to one room and was said to have done very little damage to the building, which has housed the embassy since 1952.

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