Cause of blaze at Siberian shopping mall still unknown

Teams search Kemerovo fire site for victims and clues amid reports of safety violations

Emergency vehicles gather outside a burning shopping centre in Kemerovo, Siberia, on Sunday. The death toll has reached 64, including many children. Photograph: AFP Photo/Russian emergency situations ministry

Emergency vehicles gather outside a burning shopping centre in Kemerovo, Siberia, on Sunday. The death toll has reached 64, including many children. Photograph: AFP Photo/Russian emergency situations ministry

 

Russian rescuers were still searching on Monday for the victims of a deadly fire that swept through a shopping mall in Siberia at the weekend killing at least 64 people, including many children.

Investigators have not yet established what caused the blaze that broke out at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo, 3,612km east of Moscow, on Sunday, turning the busy trading and recreation centre into an inferno.

However, officials said safety violations at the mall, including blocked emergency exits and a disabled fire alarm, may have added to the appalling scale of the tragedy.

It took Russian firefighters more than 19 hours to extinguish the fire that broke out at Winter Cherry on Sunday afternoon. A popular meeting place in Kemerovo, the mall was more crowded than usual as families celebrated the start of the week-long spring school holidays.

The blaze began on the fourth floor of the building that, housing a cafe, play area and three cinema halls, is a favourite haunt of local children.

Eyewitnesses elsewhere in the building told Russian media that fire alarms had failed to sound and they were only alerted to the emergency after screams were heard from above. Panic erupted as the flames spread with people falling over one another on the stairs and choking in the thick black smoke.

Locked doors

Many children perished after being trapped in the cinemas on the fourth floor where staff had locked the doors to prevent people from slipping in without tickets.

In a harrowing account of events, Alexander Lillevyali told Meduza, an independent Russian news service, that he was on the ground floor of the mall when he received a frantic call from one of his three daughters whom he had left watching the Sherlock Gnomes cartoon upstairs.

He rushed to the fourth floor, but collapsed in the suffocating smoke before he could reach the cinema. “My daughter was constantly calling and calling me. I shouted over the phone urging her to try to break out of the hall, but I couldn’t do anything, the blaze was already confronting me,” he said.

As the death toll rose to 64 on Monday, firefighters were still combing through the wreckage of Winter Cherry looking for victims. Russia’s emergencies ministry said the search was hampered by sporadic outbreaks of fresh fires, high temperatures, blinding smoke and the constant risk that the building would collapse.

Arriving in Kemerovo early on Monday, Viktoria Skvortsov, the Russian health minister, said genetic experts were needed at the city morgue to help identify victims, many of whom were burned beyond recognition.

Alarm turned off

Eleven people were being treated in hospital including an 11-year-old boy who was in a serious and traumatised condition after leaping from a fourth floor window at Winter Cherry to escape the fire. “He lost his parents and younger sister in the tragedy,” Ms Skvortsov said.

Within hours of launching a criminal investigation of the fire’s cause, the Russian investigative committee said it had uncovered “serious safety violations” both in the construction and operation of the Winter Cherry mall. Emergency fire exits were blocked and a private security guard at the building had, for unexplained reasons, turned off the alarm when the fire broke out, Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for the investigative committee, told Interfax.

Anna Kuznetsova, the Kremlin’s commissioner for children’s rights, said the catastrophe was the result of “negligence” and demanded immediate safety inspections at shopping malls across Russia.

In Kemerovo, hundreds of mourners came to visit a makeshift memorial outside the Winter Cherry mall on Monday, bringing flowers, candles and soft toys to honour the dead. City authorities ordered three days of official mourning starting on Tuesday.