MOSCOW - A fire in the 1,771-foot television tower here cut off nearly all TV broadcasting yesterday, forcing Muscovites to find diversion elsewhere and to ask themselves if their country's woes will ever stop.
People who might have been at home watching the "Kukly" satirical puppet program or "Sports Express" or a movie called "The Cold Summer of '53," were out strolling last night. Instead of getting the usual diet of bad news from their televisions, they were left wondering what else could go wrong.
"No television - that will be a nightmare and a horror," said Marina Gracheva, a 19-year-old medical student. "If we don't have TV, what will we do? Read?"
For Volodya Kozlov, 45, it meant missing "The Naked Truth," a program in which the news is presented by an anchorwoman who simultaneously does a striptease. "I don't call this a catastrophe," he said. "But it'll be really bad if this goes on for long. All I'll be able to do is sleep."
A crowd of hundreds gathered outside the Ostankino tower in northern Moscow to play soccer, drink beer, and generally enjoy the sight of battalions of firefighters having very little success fighting a blaze that began about 1,500 feet up in the narrow spire. Fire officials said they believe it was sparked by a short-circuit in the cables of a paging company.
But underneath the joking and festival spirits ran a dark current of anger and disgust. This hasn't been a happy summer for Russia.
Three weeks ago, a bomb went off in a Moscow passageway. Two weeks ago, the Kursk, one of Russia's most powerful submarines, sank in the Barents Sea with all hands. On Saturday, four people were crushed to death when a crowd at a market in Dagestan panicked and stampeded. Earlier yesterday, six people were killed when a passenger boat collided with a barge near Perm.
And now this, impossible not to notice as the world's second-tallest freestanding structure burned out of control and millions of television screens offered nothing but static.
"Everything around is falling apart," said Yevdokia Babkova, 76. "They didn't speak the truth about the Kursk. But they can't hide the television tower. Everyone can see it. What kind of short-circuit was it? I'm sure they were all drunk. The whole country is in bedlam."
Shortly after the fire broke out, at 3:30 p.m., fire officials said it was nothing serious and would be under control within three hours. By midnight it had spread to much of the tower. The wisps of smoke visible in the early evening had given way to a thick plume.
Three firefighters and an elevator operator were reported to be trapped in an elevator 860 feet up. The Itar-Tass news agency also reported that several government workers at the tower had not been heard from since the fire started.
By early today, the fire had been burning and TV stations had been out for almost 14 hours.
The futuristic tower, shaped like a giant needle, is a popular tourist attraction, with an observation deck and restaurant about two-thirds of the way up.
Even as most people down below were finding ways to joke about life without television, the administration of President Vladimir V. Putin clearly considered the blackout a genuine emergency, in a country where control of communications is deemed vital to the government's hold on power.
In the parliamentary uprising of 1993, Boris N. Yeltsin's opponents tried - and failed - to take over Ostankino, in a bloody battle that killed dozens. Yesterday's fire, though there was no apparent loss of life, nevertheless achieved something the rebels never could; it shut down what Russians call the organs of mass information.
Last night, in marked contrast to his slow response to the Kursk sinking, Putin met with top officials in the Kremlin to plot a course of action, which could include finding alternative broadcast sites. The rest of Russia still enjoyed television, as did those in Moscow who had a satellite dish or access to a UHF channel that remained on the air.
But everything in Russia revolves around Moscow. If the capital is blacked out, it becomes yet another national emergency.
"The Ostankino tower is the pride of Moscow," said Sergei Titkov, 36, a security guard walking his dog. "But there's no money to take care of anything. This is one and the same with the Kursk. The accidents just keep on happening. No one is responsible for anything. No one controls anything."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.