MOSCOW — With anger, sadness, and confusion, Russians struggled to come to grips Monday with a shocking failure of fire safety that allowed a blaze to storm through a crowded shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, killing 64 people.
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.
Russian social networks were flooded with grief, and a measure of anger over the response. Officials said fire exits were blocked and an alarm had been turned off. 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 — but subsequent promises to step up safety measures often prove to be halfhearted.
“We are burning, perhaps this is goodbye,” a 13-year-old named Maria posted on her social media account, according to the Rossiya-24 television channel. Hers was one of about 30 goodbyes posted by children who would not log into their accounts again.
“There are no accurate lists,” the television reporter said, “but the parents are holding on to the hope that the names of their children will be moved from the list of the dead to those missing.”
The fire broke out Sunday afternoon, the first day of a week-long school break. A class from a school in the small town of Treshchevsky had traveled to Kemerovo to see a movie at the Winter Cherry mall, eat ice cream and jump on a trampoline. On Monday, parents of the students visited hospitals hoping to find their children. The director of the school, Pavel Orynsky, broke down while describing the students on camera.
A woman named Yevgenia told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that her niece Vika called her at 4:11 — right after the fire broke out — from the movie theater where so many of the children from Treshchevsky found themselves trapped.
“She told me that everything was on fire, that all the doors were blocked,” Yevgenia said, struggling to overcome her tears.
Vika told Yevgenia over the phone that she couldn’t breathe. “I told her: Vika, take off all your clothes, take them to your nose and breathe through them.”
“Please tell Mom that I loved her,” Vika replied, “Please tell everyone that I loved them.”
That was the last Yevgenia heard from her niece.
In other corners of the Russian media, anger toward emergency services for their handling of the disaster found a platform.
An interview with Alexander Lillevyali published by Meduza, an independent outlet, recounted his attempts to save his daughters from the burning theater while first responders geared up and struggled to commit to a single course of action.
“They took three minutes — three f---ing minutes! — to put on their masks,” Lillevyali said, with tears in his eyes.
The firefighters initially followed him to the staircase leading to the theater, he said, but they were redirected by a man who told them of another fire. He then begged them to give him a mask so he could return to the theater and save the girls himself.
“They told me: Can’t do it. Everything has to be according to regulations,” Lillevyali recalled. “My girls were left to burn because of the g-----m regulations.”
Emergency services officials put the death toll at 64 on Monday, but local media reports suggest that many more may still be missing.
As of Monday evening, authorities said 23 of the dead had been identified. Fifty-two people required medical attention, and at least 12 of them were hospitalized. One is an 11-year-old boy who jumped out a fourth-floor window to escape the blaze.
Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said the boy was in serious condition and on a respirator, with several broken bones and emotionally traumatized.
“He lost his parents and a younger sister in this tragedy,” Skvortsova said.
Videos posted on social media showed others jumping from fourth-floor windows. One showed men attempting to break out of a locked stairwell as flames encroached. Another video, apparently taken from a security camera, showed that mall patrons on the fourth floor had little time to react. The inferno erupted and spread through the children’s play area in a matter of seconds.
Family and friends shared photos of children believed to have been at the mall when the fire broke out.
Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal investigation on Monday and detained several people involved in the mall’s operation for questioning. Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said authorities were looking into several “serious violations” of fire safety codes.
Petrenko said that fire exits were blocked and that a private security guard turned off the fire alarm after receiving notice of the fire. The security firm denied the allegations in comments given to the RBC news agency.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, but the Kemerovo region’s vice governor, Vladimir Chernov, said the working theory is that a child may have used a cigarette lighter to ignite a foam ball in the children’s play area on the fourth floor.
The fire’s epicenter has been identified as the play area — near the theater where many children were trapped.
Eyewitness accounts suggest that the fire alarm did not sound, leaving those in the theater initially unaware of the emergency.
According to the Kommersant newspaper, almost 300 firefighters and more than 60 firetrucks arrived to battle the blaze. It took authorities 19 hours to extinguish the flames, which covered an area of 16,000 square feet. The roof over this section collapsed.
The head of Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry, Vladimir Puchkov, described thick clouds of smoke and limited visibility as temperatures within the mall reached nearly 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire raged for hours before firefighters could reach the fourth floor.
In addition to theaters and the children’s play area, that floor featured a large petting zoo. All of the animals are reported to have died.
Smaller fires reignited Monday afternoon, and temperatures within parts of the mall were still almost 400 degrees, Puchkov told reporters.
Late Monday, attention began to shift toward Russia’s abysmal fire safety record, with legislators and other officials promising swift amendments to fire safety codes and stricter code enforcement, as they typically have in the wake of past disasters.
Chernov said authorities would conduct safety checks at other shopping centers in the region.
The blaze in Kemerovo is just one of several major fire disasters in Russia in the past 15 years. In 2003, a fire in a student dorm at a Moscow university killed 44 and injured 156. In a 2007 nursing home fire in Krasnodar, 63 people died, and a 2009 nightclub fire in Perm killed 153. In 2015, a fire at a mall in Kazan killed 19 people and injured 61.