Putin blames ‘criminal negligence’ for mall fire that killed sixty-seven
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images(KEMEROVO, Russia) — Thousands of angry residents have demonstrated in the Russian city of Kemerovo, calling for a full-investigation into the devastating fire at a shopping mall on Sunday that killed at least 67 people, most of them children. Those demonstrating are demanding that officials be held responsible, and investigators have suggested that there were serious violations of fire safety regulations at the mall.
A national day of mourning was declared on Tuesday as President Vladimir Putin arrived in Kemerovo to pay tribute to the victims and chair a meeting on the state of the investigation. At the meeting, Putin blamed the catastrophe on “criminal negligence” and accused local officials of certifying the building as safe in return for bribes.
“What has happened here with us, it’s not military action, it’s not an unexpected methane leak in a mine,” Putin said at the televised meeting. “People came to relax, children. We talk about demography and we lose so many people because of what? Because of criminal negligence, because of slovenliness.”
The fire tore through the upper floors of the Winter Cherry mall on Sunday, engulfing a kids amusement area and movie theater. Investigators are focused on what they have said are serious fire safety violations at the mall — many fire doors were blocked, the emergency alarm system was disabled and mall security appeared to make almost no attempt to evacuate. Five people have been detained, including the technical director of the company that owns the mall, police said.
Putin has ordered Russia’s Investigative Committee, the equivalent of the FBI, to examine the actions of officials responsible for certifying the mall as safe and promised those responsible would be held accountable. Putin directly voiced widely-expressed suspicions that those who authorized it must have been bribed.
“Without money it’s impossible to get a certificate, but for money they will sign anything,” Putin said. Adding, “Here status means nothing, when people have died, children, Everyone who should answer, will answer.”
During the meeting, Aman Tuleyev, the governor of the Kemerovo Province in Russia, said he wanted to apologize to Putin “personally that such a thing has happened on our territory.” Tuleyev also accused “opposition forces” of playing a role in the demonstrations taking place.
The Investigative Committee’s head, Aleksander Bastrykhin, told Putin that detectives believe the most likely cause of the fire was faulty electricity around the children’s play area. A second possible theory is that someone had an open flame in the area, but Bastrykihn said investigators believe that is less likely.
Bastrykhin described a litany of failures in how the mall responded to the blaze. He confirmed to Putin that its fire alarm system had been disabled since March 19, deliberately switched off and then neglected because of a fault. Security guards could have triggered another alarm but the guard tasked with doing so did not, Bastrykhin told Putin. The guard has been detained, and has been unable to explain why he didn’t activate the alarm. Most of the mall’s security staff “ran off” when the fire began, Bastrykhin said.
Many of the children died trapped inside a movie theater auditorium, which had been locked while the film was showing. Bastrykhin said investigators were still establishing why the auditorium had been locked, saying it may have been to prevent people without tickets from entering.
Investigators had also found what appeared to be violations in how the mall was converted from a former factory in 2013. The mall’s main investor is a Russian man currently living in Australia.
The atmosphere of fury around the allegations of official fecklessness and corruption has given birth to angry rumors of a cover up with claims circulating on social media that the real death-count was far higher, as many as 350. Police have denied the rumors. But ingrained secrecy in Russian administration has fed them. Relatives of the dead have had to sign non-disclosure agreements before they can take possession of the bodies, a standard practice according to police.
At the demonstration, the city’s mayor, Ilya Seredyuk, proposed to the crowd to nominate a group to tour the mortuary and the mall to see for themselves that the rumors of higher death counts were untrue. The group has now traveled to morgue, Russian news agencies have reported.
Fifty-nine bodies have been found so far, the Investigative Committee said. A count posted by relatives of the victims in a reception center opened by emergency services in Kemerovo shows 41 of the dead were children, the news agency Interfax reported.
The fire is one of the most deadly in recent Russian history. Another blaze in the Siberian city of Perm in 2009 killed 153.
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