Neighbors were seriously alarmed after a gas blast rocked an old student dorm that had become a "playground" for local teenagers in Narva. Fires in condemned buildings are often the handiwork of minors but it can be difficult to force owners to demolish buildings. Children continue risking their lives while the legislator looks for a way out," ETV+ investigative program "Insight" reported.
A powerful blast rocked Kerese street in Narva two weeks ago. An abandoned dorm was ablaze minutes later. Residents of the apartment building opposite the street recalled that the blast caused the windows of nearby buildings to clatter. The explosion was caused by gas.
The police apprehended two men who had broken into the abandoned building after likely consuming alcohol that night.
"One of them pulled on some gas pipes, causing a gas leak. The man lit a lighter a short while later that caused the gas to explode. One of the men is still in hospital," Indrek Püvi, head of the Narva Police Station said.
The punishment for causing an explosion that endangers people's lives is up to five years in prison. The police launched a criminal investigation.
Witnesses from across the street
People living across from the dorm said it was the work of minors several of whom were in the building when the fire broke out.
"My husband saw several people run out of the building, not just two as the media reported. They were at least four or five. One kid could not keep up the pace and was caught by the police, forced to put his hands on his head and drop to his knees. He was very agitated, worried and crying. I thought an acquaintance of his had remained in the building," one of the residents recalled.
Other neighbors also saw a group of youths next to the building on the night of the blast.
The old dorm belongs to the University of Tartu. It was abandoned a year ago when the new study and accommodation building of the Estonian National Defense College and University of Tartu was finished.
"The building has been put in mothballs so to speak. There is no heating or water. The power is still in, but the doors were closed as were the first-floor windows," Heiki Pagel, head of the University of Tartu real estate department, said.
Abandoned buildings could still have gas and water, while their use is prohibited.
"There couldn't have been gas there. The building has been disconnected from the grid. Maybe there is another gas pipe nearby. I cannot claim the problem has nothing to do with the gas transmission network," Pagel said.
The locals say the abandoned building has long since become an attraction for local youths. People have seen teenagers take toys to the building and take washing machines and other appliances out. There have been repeated police reports.
"We called the police. They came and chased the kids on the rooftop. A group of youths was standing next to the building, they were completely ignored. This could have been anticipated. There were other callers," a woman from next door recalled.
While this is the first time the abandoned dorm has caught fire, the situation cannot be described as calm. Another abandoned building just a few meters from the dorm has burned four times in the last year.
"This year, there have been 14 fires in abandoned buildings in Narva, caused by hooligans. Cases of homeless people starting a fire in buildings are very rare. Most calls have to do with hooliganism," said Artjom Ivanov, chief inspector for the Rescue Board's safety oversight bureau.
"The number one cause is young people getting drunk and doing something stupid," head of police in Narva Indrek Püvi agreed.
While these shenanigans have not produced any victims yet, it takes more than efforts to convince to contain teenagers. The buildings needs to be made inaccessible. That is the duty of property owners. The old dorm was fenced in and had cameras and motion sensors installed after the fire.
"This particular building is not the biggest problem. At least the doors and windows were boarded over in the abandoned dorm," Püvi said.
Closed but not demolished
"The most sensible thing to do in terms of resident safety would be to demolish the building or fix it up so it could be used again," Ivanov said.
It is difficult to force owners to demolish buildings. The University of Tartu promised to demolish the old dorm after moving students to the new buildings shared with the National Defense College. It has been a year with no news on when the work could commence.
"We restricted access with a fence and put the entire territory under surveillance. However, we will try to get this unnecessary property evaluated and sold in the long run," Heiki Pagel explained.
"We can only carry out raids, issue precepts and fines, but all our measures are merely temporary. They work for a month or two. The owner boards up the entrances, while minors tear down the boards a month or two later, climb in and start building fires again," Ivanov said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski