Monday, July 18, 2011

The Moscow Fire of 1977

I had only been in Moscow for a few weeks when the Embassy faced one of its greatest crises. This was the fire of August 26, 1977, in which the Embassy nearly burned down.

It was a little after 10:30 pm on a Friday night. I was relaxing in my apartment at Spaso House when the phone rang. It was the DCM, Jack Matlock. He said he was in his office in the Embassy and needed to talk to the Ambassador as quickly as possible. I asked Svetlana Alekhina, our beautiful blonde telephone operator, where the Ambassador was, and she told me that he was at the Romanian Ambassador’s residence, attending a black tie dinner. I passed this information on to the DCM, and said I would try to get the Ambassador on the phone. “Please hurry, Jim,” Matlock urged. After a few tries, I got through to the Romanian Ambassador’s residence. The phone was answered by a very arrogant butler who absolutely refused to bring the Ambassador to the phone. “I can’t interrupt dinner,” he said. I didn’t know exactly what the problem was, but I told the butler in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t up to him to make that kind of decision. “Tell the Ambassador, and let him decide,” I said. The butler agreed and hung up. I waited for about five minutes and then the phone rang. It was the Ambassador. “What’s going on, Jim?” he said. “I don’t know, Mr. Ambassador, but the DCM needs to speak to you right away.” At that moment, the other line rang. It was Matlock again. “Mr. Matlock, I’ve got the Ambassador on the other line. What should I tell him?” Matlock, the agitation rising in his voice, replied, “Jim, tell him we’ve got a fire here in--”… and at that moment the line suddenly went dead. I relayed this information to Ambassador Toon. He thought a second and said, “I guess I should get over there.” I agreed, and said I would meet him at the Embassy.

I jumped in my 1969 Chevy Caprice and barreled off to the Embassy, which was only a couple of blocks away. The sight that greeted me was hard to believe. Most of the eighth floor of the Embassy was on fire. The economic section, on the north side of the central wing, was almost completely engulfed, and I could see that the fire was rapidly spreading to the Press and Culture section down the hall on the south side of the building. The Marines had been fighting the fire ever since it had been discovered less than an hour before, but it was rapidly getting out of control. GSO had called the Moscow Fire Department, but no one had arrived yet. A couple of hundred people, mostly those living in apartments on the lower floors of the central wing, but also denizens of the north and south wings, were milling around in front of the Embassy, and spilling out into the 16-lane Ring Road, on which the Embassy fronted. Many were in a bit of a daze, like poor Ken Skoug, the Economic Counselor. Ken wandered up and down in front of the Embassy, mumbling to no one in particular, “I’ve lost everything,” as flames billowed out of his eighth floor office window.

The Ambassador arrived in his black tie outfit, and began directing operations. The fire was really going now, and had spread to the seventh, ninth and tenth floors. The Fire Department arrived and began fighting the fire on the lower floors. Many of our officers who escorted the firemen were struck by the poor condition of the initial group of Soviet firefighters, most of whom were not very well trained young men with outdated equipment and leaky fire hoses. These first responders nonetheless fought the fire well, and gradually gained the upper hand. However, when the Soviet fire brigade commander asked for permission to move to the attic in order to fight the fire there, Toon at first replied, “Let it burn.” This was because Toon suspected that some of the “professional firefighters” might actually be working for the KGB, and because the Embassy had a lot of sensitive equipment under the eves. In reviewing later accounts by eyewitnesses, it seems unlikely that the first responders had KGB mixed in, but there is little doubt that some later arrivals were indeed representatives of the “Special Services.”

Eventually, the firefighters were allowed to enter the upper floors under DAO escort. To prevent the KGB from hacking their way into our safes, several of the Embassy’s military officers stayed on the tenth floor to watch the firefighters as they did their work. A few suffered from smoke inhalation, and a good friend of mine, Doug Englund, suffered a somewhat more embarrassing injury, accidentally sitting down in a pool of battery acid. His colleagues later ribbed poor Doug mercilessly about his “noble sacrifice,” noting that they were going to put him in for a medal. Other DAO personnel exhibited esprit de corps in other ways, not only by safeguarding the classified areas, but also by saving valuable items from the blaze. For example, as the fire was worsening on the ninth floor, Marc Powe ran to Post One to retrieve the American flag.

Plenty of other Embassy officers were also involved in the firefighting operations. For example, Dick Combs was stationed on the ninth floor to watch what was going on there, and A/GSO Sandy Gust was the direct liaison with the Soviet firefighters on the street. I recall listening in on her conversations with the firefighters, and she was quite effective. Once, when the fire blazed up again, the Soviet fire brigade commander wanted to return to the tenth floor, which he believed to be the source of the new fire. DAO personnel had determined, however, that the fire was actually in the emergency generator room on the ninth floor, and Sandy convinced the Soviet fire brigade commander that foam, not water, was the only way to douse the fire. In particular, she impressed the Ambassador by knowing the Russian words for “foam dispensing fire extinguisher” (пена-дающий огнетушитель), thus winning his good opinion, a most difficult thing to do.

Ambassador Toon continued to direct operations at the scene, but in some cases, his orders were not carried out. On one occasion, when it looked like the fire might get out of control and burn down the Embassy, he instructed Marc Powe to find CIA Station Chief Gus Hathaway and tell him to leave the building. Marc found Gus guarding his area dressed in a London Fog raincoat and armed with a .38 caliber revolver. On hearing the Ambassador’s order, Gus gave Marc “a rather undiplomatic response,” the gist of which was that he wasn’t going to leave under any circumstances, even if the building was burning down around him. Ambassador Toon was not happy, but there was nothing he could do, and Gus stayed behind. Gus, like Toon, was a World War II veteran, and knew his duty.

Evacuation to Spaso.
On towards midnight, the fire was slowly coming under control, and it was becoming increasingly evident that at least a hundred former residents of the central wing were going to have to find another place to spend the night. After checking with the Ambassador, I alerted the Spaso staff, and started ferrying people over to spend the night there. By the time I got there with the first car convoy, our staff, which had all reported back for duty despite the late hour, had set up cots in the ballroom and the chandelier room. I kept on ferrying people until there was no one left who needed a place to stay. At that point, a funny thing happened. My car suddenly stalled and could not be revived. My passengers and I pushed it to the side of the road, and were wondering what to do next, when a Russian drove up and offered to take the rest of us back to Spaso. It was evidently one of our KGB minders, who decided to take pity on us and help out. We immediately accepted his offer, and drove back to Spaso.

By the time I got back, it was the wee hours of the morning, and I had to gingerly step over the bodies of sleeping Embassy employees to get to my apartment. Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned on the lights and was greeted with about twenty of my colleagues who I startled out of sleep. “Turn off that light!” someone said, and I dutifully did so, stepping past more supine bodies to get to my bedroom, which had thoughtfully been left vacant.

The Aftermath.
The next morning, I clambered out of bed and walked over to the Embassy to retrieve my car and take a look at the damage. The eighth floor had been burned out, and every floor from seven on up had suffered smoke and water damage. The Chancery was a wreck, for all intents and purposes. Fortunately, no one had been killed in the fire, although it had been a near thing. One of our communicators in the ninth floor communications SCIF didn’t hear the alarm, and was nearly trapped, until the Marines, ever thorough, broke in to make sure no one was left behind.

DCM Matlock also nearly came to grief. He stayed in his offices on the ninth floor well past when it was safe. According to Ed Watson, our burly black telephone technician, he had to lift Matlock up bodily and carry him out of his office. At first, Matlock had refused to go, clambering around trying to save some of his books, or so Ed told the story. I’m just glad we were all able to laugh about it afterwards.

Some of the families in the Central Wing also had narrow escapes. Air Attaché Chuck Roades and his family were a case in point. As the fire was getting out of control, and the Marines were getting everyone out of the Central Wing, Chuck’s wife Vicki first found out about the evacuation order when she heard pounding on the front door, which was then split apart by an ax. The Marines helped Chuck’s elderly mother down the steps, and rapidly tossed his sleeping seven-year-old son, Chas, from one Marine to another, landing by landing, all the way down six flights of stairs. Legend has it that Chas slept through the whole thing and awoke only when he was safely outside.

The fire made the front pages of most of the papers in the States, with pictures of the Embassy the morning after prominently featured. Ambassador Toon told the media that he thought it would take about five months to repair the damage, and he turned out to be correct. In later years, the Embassy proved to be a proper firetrap, with a serious electrical fire in 1988, and an elevator shaft fire in March 1991 that nearly burned down the Embassy -- again.

As time went on, debate grew over what exactly caused the fire. The Embassy had always been something of a firetrap, and there had been serious fires, including one in the Medical Unit when a welding accident had set some pipe insulation on fire. The biggest fire hazard, however, was the Chancery’s balky electrical wiring, which was continuously overloaded due to the extremely high demand from all the electronic equipment placed in what was essentially a 1950s Stalin-era apartment building. Early reports indicated that a hot water kettle had been left on in Econ and that this was the cause of the blaze. If so, it was a most inopportune place for a fire to start, since Econ was full of loose stacks of paper that must have gone up instantly. Another more way-out theory was that the KGB had something to do with it. The KGB had built a shed on the roof of the building across the Ring Road from the Embassy and was beaming microwaves at the Embassy. One theory, although not the leading one, was that the microwaves could somehow disable electronic equipment or make it otherwise malfunction. Personally, I lean to the hot water kettle theory -- it fits Occam's razor best.

Whatever the function of the KGB microwave shed may have been, the Embassy got a measure of revenge a few months later, when the KGB shed caught fire and much of the roof around it went up in flames. The Marines saw the conflagration, and opened their bar on the second floor to celebrate, reportedly playing "Disco Inferno" by the Trammps ("Burn, Baby Burn") at top volume out the windows of the Embassy. That was of course very droll of the Marines, but we got a protest note from the MFA, all the same.

In the days following the fire, many occupants of the eighth, ninth and tenth floors came down to share our offices on the smoke-damaged seventh floor, and for a few months, we were five to a desk. It was fun for awhile, but got old quick. Rusty Hughes distinguished himself by stepping out of his Political Officer role and rewiring and electrifying the seventh floor. I’m not sure where he picked up such practical knowledge, but we were all very grateful. Other refugees from the eighth floor moved to P&C Down for the next few months, sharing cramped spaces with their colleagues and several noisy teletype machines. The Ambassador and DCM took up temporary residence in USCO.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs very “generously” offered to provide whatever help we needed to assist in the restoration of the Embassy building. Unfortunately, our first request, for a crane tall enough to reach the roof, met with the response that none were available – this despite the fact that Moscow’s skyline was festooned with construction cranes of every type. Eventually, the Embassy obtained a crane from an American contractor who was exhibiting it at VDNKh. We were on our own, as usual. Other arms of the Soviet government had their own ideas about how to help. For several days after the fire, helicopters flew low over the Embassy to get a close look at the attic. They were too late, however, to see anything of consequence.

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