KEMEROVO, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin flew to the scene of a deadly shopping mall fire in Siberia that killed 64 people and promised angry residents yesterday that those responsible for what he called criminal negligence would be harshly punished.
The fire, at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo, killed 41 children, according to the Interfax news agency, and the calamitous way it was handled has stirred anger and focused attention on corruption and lax fire safety standards.
Re-elected only this month, Mr Putin laid flowers at a makeshift memorial to the victims in the coal-producing region about 3,600 km east of Moscow, before chairing a meeting of top officials.
“What’s happening here? This isn’t war, it’s not an unexpected methane explosion at a coal mine. People came to relax, children. We’re talking about demography and losing so many people,” Mr Putin, visibly angry, told the meeting.
“Why? Because of some criminal negligence, because of slovenliness. How could this ever happen?” he added.
“The first emotion when hearing about the number of dead and dead children is not to cry but to wail. And when you listen to what has been said here, speaking honestly, other emotions arise.”
Investigators said fire exits had been illegally blocked, the public address system had not been switched on, the fire alarm system was broken, and children had been locked inside cinemas.
Many staff responsible for public safety fled when the fire broke out, investigators said.
The fire swept through the upper floors of the shopping center, where a cinema complex and children’s play area were located, on Sunday afternoon.
Hundreds of angry protesters, many of them crying, gathered in central Kemerovo yesterday to express their anger over the disaster.
The mayor, Ilya Seredyuk, tried to speak, but his words were often drowned out by chants calling on him to resign.
Many locals do not believe the official death toll of 64 and suspect that hundreds of people were killed in the blaze and that a cover-up is underway, something Putin has flatly denied.
Relatives of the victims say they have compiled a list of 85 people, most of them children, who are still missing.
Public anger was reflected in protesters’ placards.
Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, told Mr Putin the fire alarm system in the mall had been out of order since March 19 and that a security guard had not turned on the public address system to warn people to evacuate the building.
He said five people had already been detained.