Anger mounts in Russia over mall fire that killed 41 children
President Vladimir Putin flew to the scene in the Siberian city of Kemerovo two days after the tragedy and laid roses at a makeshift memorial as critics questioned his response to one of the deadliest fires in Russia over the past century.
Hundreds of angry residents had earlier packed Kemerovo’s central square, calling for the resignation of the region’s veteran governor and questioning the official death toll.
Investigators said relatives had reported 67 people missing, but it was not clear if this included or was in addition to the 64 confirmed dead.
After a huge outpouring of grief and anger on social media, the Kremlin announced a nationwide day of mourning for Wednesday for victims of the fire, which raged through the busy shopping centre on Sunday afternoon.
“My family is no more,” Igor Vostrikov — who lost his wife, sister and three children aged two, five and seven years — said on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook.
“The ruling regime in my country is to blame for it. Every official is dreaming of stealing like Putin. Every state employee treats people like dirt.”
Investigators said the victims and dozens of animals were burned alive or suffocated because emergency exits were locked, notably at one of the cinemas where children were watching cartoons.
A criminal probe has been opened and five people have been arrested over the blaze.
Multiple safety rules were violated, the fire alarm system had not worked since last week and staff did not follow correct emergency procedures, officials said.
‘We are dying. I love you’
Putin, who was re-elected for a fourth term in polls earlier this month, visited a memorial of stuffed toys, flowers and balloons near the gutted mall’s facade, 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.
“We are talking about demographics but are losing so many people. Because of what? Because of some criminal negligence, slovenliness,” Putin said.
Putin’s top critic Alexei Navalny called for mourners to attend a vigil in central Moscow, while a rival official event took place near the Kremlin walls.
“We are all mourning. I am personally mourning,” Navalny said.
Russian newspapers ran heart-wrenching accounts of children’s last minutes as they called their parents and relatives.
“Tell my mom that I loved her,” one woman quoted her niece as saying in comments in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Vostrikov, who lost his family in the blaze, said he had spoken to his wife in her final moments.
“We have been locked inside the movie theatre. We are suffocating, we are dying. I love you,” he said she had told him.
Speaking in videotaped comments, he claimed the number of victims was much higher than reported.
Many others also questioned the official death toll but officials said the figures were final, urging Russians not to trust unconfirmed reports on social media.
The head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, said ticket collectors and other staff fled the scene, leaving 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.
Bastrykin also told Putin that a teacher had left her class alone in a games room, and the entire class died in the fire.
The mall also housed a petting zoo and dozens of animals perished.
– ‘Gas chambers’ –
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.
Meeting with a group of grieving locals, Putin said some 100 investigators were working at the scene.
A young man told Putin he was outraged that the doors were locked at the mall, effectively turning the premises into “gas chambers”.
Putin promised a “transparent” investigation but declined to fire Aman Tuleyev, who has been governor of the Kemerovo region for the past 21 years.
Tuleyev apologised to Putin over the rally, calling its organisers troublemakers.
The Russian leader also visited victims at a local hospital including Ivan Zavarzin, 18, who survived the fire after jumping from the fourth floor.
A number of Russian cities mourned in solidarity with Kemerovo, which declared a three-day period of mourning.
Residents of Beslan, where more than 330 people — more than a half of them children — died in a 2004 school siege by Islamists — gathered at the building’s ruins to honour the Kemerovo victims. (AFP)