MOSCOW — Thousands of people gathered in front of the main municipal building in the Siberian city of Kemerovo Tuesday to demand answers following Sunday’s tragic fire in a local mall that killed at least 64 people — 41 of whom are now understood to have been children.
The tragedy at Winter Cherry mall has gripped the nation. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but local officials say a child may have lit a foam ball in the children’s play area. The fire quickly engulfed the mall’s top floor, trapping children in a nearby movie theater.
Fire alarms did not sound, and fire doors were locked. The committee charged with investigating the crime said the alarms had been out of service since March 19 and a security guard neglected to trip manual alarms once the fire was reported.
President Vladimir Putin himself flew out to the city, located some 2,000 miles east of Moscow to meet with local officials and calm speculation that many more had died than in the official toll.
Demonstrations for a full probe into the tragedy began Tuesday morning with perhaps a dozen people, and has grown throughout the day to a reported 4,000. Many of the demonstrators doubt the official count of 64 dead, alleging the number to be much higher.
“Truth! Truth!” they chanted. “How many dead?”
They are also calling for the resignation of Kemerovo Mayor Ilya Seredyuk and the regional governor, Aman Tuleyev. Footage from the scene shows riot police in tactical gear standing between citizens and the administration building.
“Resign! Take them to court!” the crowd continued.
An entire class of schoolchildren apparently died in Sunday’s fire, some having had the chance to make desperate, futile phone calls to parents or relatives before succumbing to the smoke and flames. Others posted to social media before falling silent and never logging into their accounts again.
Neither Putin nor Tuleyev faced the crowds, but Seredyuk ventured out to invite a group of 15 demonstrators to visit the morgue with him and inspect the bodies themselves.
According to the Interfax news agency, one of the group’s members confirmed the official count of 64 bodies.
“We have inspected the morgue,” the demonstrator, who was not named in the report, was quoted as saying. “We have seen the bodies. Judging by their size, there are some 20 adults in the morgue. The others are children. The bodies have not been hidden.”
Putin arrived at the morgue shortly after, and urged the demonstrators to ignore speculation circulating on social media about a possible death count reaching into the hundreds.
“There is no sense in doubting the official data on the number of people killed,” Putin told the group. He also asked them to wait for a full investigation before assigning blame, assuring them that officials responsible for the tragedy would be punished, regardless of their rank or standing.
“What is happening here? It is not hostilities or an unexpected discharge of methane in a mine. People, children came there to have a good time,” he told ministers in a meeting, according to IFAX. “Why? It is because of criminal negligence and disorderliness.”
The disastrous blaze joins a long list of accidents, fires and sinkings in Russia marked by apparent negligence beforehand and inept or insufficient response by emergency services. Russian prosecutors can be quick to assign criminal blame in such cases — and rapidly went to work in Kemerovo with four arrests — but subsequent promises to step up safety measures often prove to be halfhearted.
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