Thousands in Russian city rally after shopping mall fire
MOSCOW – The Associated Press
Thousands of angry and distraught Russians rallied on March 27 in a Siberian city to demand a full probe into a shopping mall fire that killed at least 64 people, 41 of them children.
President Vladimir Putin, who also visited the city, blamed the deaths on “a criminal negligence, sloppiness,” as he laid flowers in tribute to the victims. He did not meet with the protesters.
The blaze engulfed the Winter Cherry mall in Kemerovo on Sunday, the first weekend of the school recess, trapping dozens of parents and children inside. Eyewitnesses reported that fire alarms were silent and many doors were locked. Some of the victims were children who died in a locked movie theater.
The angry residents rallied outside the regional government building in Kemerovo for hours, with many of the protesters taking the stage to accuse the authorities of hiding the real scale of the disaster.
Igor Vostrikov, who lost his three daughters, wife and sister in the locked movie theater, said families of the victims think the death toll is much higher because the entire movie theater burnt down.
“We’re not calling for blood,” he said at the rally. “The children are dead, you can’t give them back. We need justice.”
The rally entered its sixth hour late afternoon local time, and the protesters were not leaving.
The impromptu protest underscored the residents’ frustration with the official response to the tragedy: the local governor has not visited the site of the fire or met with the relatives, and Putin has not announced a period of national mourning.
Putin flew to Kemerovo earlier on March 27 and visited the makeshift memorial to the victims outside the shopping mall. The footage released by his press office showed the president laying flowers on a deserted plaza with his security detail guarding the perimeter.
“How could this possibly happen? What’s the reason?” Putin said at a meeting with the task force dealing with the fire, according to comments distributed by his press office.
Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov said 58 bodies have been recovered and that the rescue workers are still searching for six more.
Investigators said emergency exits were blocked and a security guard turned off the public announcement system when he received a call about the blaze.
Alexander Bastrykin, chief of the Investigative Committee, told Putin during a meeting in Kemerovo that the fire alarm had not been operational for two weeks and that the security guard was detained but they still had no “reasonable” explanation for his actions.
Deputy Governor Vladimir Chernov, the only top regional official who showed up at the rally, dismissed the unconfirmed reports of hundreds of deaths as rumors and said he was ready to resign if people want him to.
“Resign, resign!” the crowd chanted to him.
Kemerovo’s mayor asked the rally to nominate its representatives to visit the morgue to check for themselves that the authorities were not hiding the truth about the deaths. A dozen protesters did so, and had a word in the lobby with Putin, who asked the protesters “not to doubt” that authorities will conduct a transparent probe.
“Those who need to answer for that, everyone will,” Putin told the residents when pressed to fire Governor Aman Tuleyev.