KEMEROVO, Russia, March 27, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday “criminal negligence” was to blame for a Siberian mall fire that killed at least 64 people, including 41 children, after they found themselves trapped in the inferno because of locked doors.
Two days after the tragedy and after facing criticism on social media for the delay, the Kremlin announced a nationwide day of mourning for Wednesday as questions swirled about Putin’s response to one of the deadliest fires recorded in Russia over the past century.
A criminal probe has been opened and five people have been arrested over the blaze, which raged through the busy shopping centre in the industrial city of Kemerovo in western Siberia on Sunday afternoon.
Investigators said the victims and dozens of animals were burned alive or suffocated because emergency exits were locked, notably at one of the cinema halls where children were watching cartoons.
Forty-one children were among the dead, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing a source in the regional emergencies services.
Putin visited a makeshift memorial of stuffed toys, flowers and balloons near the gutted mall’s facade on Tuesday, telling officials he felt “like wailing” over the number of victims.
“What is happening here? These are not armed hostilities. This is not an unexpected release of methane in a mine. People, children came to relax,” Putin said after laying flowers at the memorial.
“We are talking about demographics but are losing so many people. Because of what? Because of some criminal negligence, slovenliness,” Putin said.
“The first feelings when they speak about the number of victims and the number of dead children… one feels like wailing — not crying,” he said.
– ‘Tell my mom I loved her’ –
Russian newspapers ran heart-wrenching accounts of children’s last minutes as they called their parents and relatives after being separated by the quick-spreading fire.
“Tell my mom that I loved her,” one woman quoted her niece as saying in comments in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Igor Vostrikov — who lost his wife, sister and three children aged 2, 5 and 7 years — said his family had perished in one of the cinemas where the doors were locked from the outside.
“No one had come to the rescue. They could have been saved,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
The head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, said ticket collectors and other staff fled the scene, leaving the moviegoers locked inside.
“Those workers who were supposed to be in charge of safety, organising evacuation, they were the first to flee,” he told Putin.
Temperatures during the blaze reached 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit) and some of the bodies were so burned they could not be identified, officials said.
Bastrykin said 37 bodies would have to be identified through genetic analysis.
Critics had wondered why the Kremlin did not call a nationwide day of mourning earlier and said television channels did not pull entertainment programmes from their schedule fast enough.
Many questioned the official death toll but officials said the figures were final, urging Russians not to trust unconfirmed reports on social media.
– ‘Gas chambers’ –
Meeting with a group of grieving locals, Putin said some 100 investigators were working at the scene, promising they would get to the bottom of what had happened.
A young man told Putin he was outraged that the doors were locked at the mall, effectively turning the premises into “gas chambers.”
“People suffocated,” he told Putin.
Multiple safety rules were violated, and Putin said the mall had not undergone any checks for the past two years.
He promised a “transparent” investigation, saying hundreds of malls across the country were in a similar condition.
The Russian leader also visited victims at a local hospital including Ivan Zavarzin, 18, who survived after jumping from the fourth floor during the fire.
He told Putin that “many did not believe in the seriousness of what was happening during the first few minutes thinking it was a drill,” the Kremlin said.
The Kemerovo region has declared three days of mourning beginning Tuesday.
Vigils were planned in Moscow and Saint Petersburg for Tuesday evening and several other Russian cities mourned in solidarity.
The mall also housed a petting zoo with dozens of animals who also perished in the blaze.
Originally built in 1969, the building was redeveloped several times and previously housed a factory.
Investigators asked children and adults who were in the mall’s play area to give testimony to help establish the cause of the blaze.