Moscow, March 27 (IANS) Thousands of angry Russians took to the streets in the Siberian city of Kemerovo demanding a full investigation into a shopping mall fire that claimed the lives of 64 people — 41 of them children.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who flew to the city to offer his condolences to the victims’ families, declared three days of national mourning beginning on Wednesday. He blamed the blaze on “criminal negligence” and promised that those responsible would be held accountable, Sputnik news agency reported.
Deputy Emergencies Minister Vladlen Aksyonov said that rescue workers recovered the bodies of all 64 victims and they were handed over to Russia’s Investigative Committee.
However, relatives said as many as 85 people were still missing, most of them children, according to Interfax news agency.
The deadly blaze swept through the four-storey Winter Cherry shopping mall on Sunday, the first weekend of school holidays, trapping many families who had gathered at a children’s play area and cinema hall there.
Russian investigators said the mall’s fire exits were blocked and a fire safety technician at the complex “switched off the alarm system” after being alerted about the fire.
The cause of the fire was not yet known, but Russia’s Investigative Committee spoke of “serious violations” at the shopping mall.
It said a criminal investigation into the cause of the fire had begun, although reports suggested that it could have been started by a child misusing a cigarette lighter or malfunctioning electrical wires.
A video released by Putin’s press office showed him laying roses at a makeshift memorial scattered with candles and toys. “What is happening here?”, Putin said after laying a wreath at the scene. “This is no battle or an unexpected methane outburst in a mine.”
“People, children came to relax. We are talking about demography and are losing so many people because of what? Because of criminal negligence, sloppiness,” he said.
Putin did not meet with demonstrators in Kemerovo, who had gathered in front of the local administration office to call for a full probe into the fire. They also demanded that officials be sacked over the fire safety shortcomings.
Members of the distraught crowd cast doubt on the official death toll and demanded that the Forensic Examiner’s Office verify the number, TASS news agency reported.
Footage from the scene showed riot police standing between protesters and the municipal building. “A lot of children died. They died because of irresponsibility of management,” said one protester Svetlana Shestakova.
The main slogans were “Truth!” and “Resign!” — directed at local officials. Dozens of people vowed to stay on the square until Kemerovo’s Governor Aman Tuleyev resigns.
However, Putin said “it was not right to apportion blame right away.” He added that officials at every level will be closely investigated.
Out of 64 bodies, 25 were identified which included 13 children. An official in the emergency services said that another 68 people were injured and poisoned with combustion products. Putin also visited the injured in Kemerovo’s regional hospital.
Meanwhile, the head of the city’s fire department Sergei Yakovlev said that the blaze had spread via flammable thermal insulation that complicated the process of extinguishing the inferno.