Protests in Russian city where mall fire killed at least 67

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. Among the demonstrators were victims’ relatives, some of whom had lost entire families, and those rallying demanded officials be held responsible for the disaster that investigators have suggested was caused by major fire safety violations.

The demonstrators, who confronted a vice governor during the day, reflected a sentiment expressed widely on Tuesday that catastrophe was emblematic of a wider problem in ordinary Russian life of sapping corruption and official irresponsibility in a country where power is heavily centralized.

President Vladimir Putin sought to address that grievance as he flew into Keremovo on Tuesday to pay tribute to the victims and chair a meeting on the state of the investigation into the fire. Putin declared a national day of mourning and in the meeting blamed the catastrophe on “criminal negligence.”

“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.

He continued, “Here status means nothing, when people have died, children. Everyone who should answer, will answer.”

At the demonstration, there were calls for Kemerovo’s governor, Aman Tuleyev, to resign. Tuleyev has avoided meeting with relatives of the disaster and at the meeting on Tuesday he said he wanted to apologize to Putin “personally that such a thing has happened on our territory.” Tuleyev accused “opposition forces” of playing a role in the demonstration taking place.

The Investigative Committee’s head, Aleksandr Bastrykin, 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 Bastrykin said investigators believe that is less likely.

Bastrykin described a litany of alleged 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, Bastrykin 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, Bastrykin said.

Many of the children died trapped inside a movie theater auditorium, which had been locked while a film was showing. Bastrykin said investigators were still establishing why the auditorium had been locked, saying it may have been to prevent people without tickets from entering.

Investigators have 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 fire is one of the most lethal in modern Russian history, the worst since 153 people died in a nightclub in the city of Perm in 2009. 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 is 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 could take possession of the bodies, a standard practice, according to police.

At the demonstration, the city’s mayor, Ilya Seredyuk, proposed to the crowd they nominate a group to tour the mortuary and the mall to see for themselves that the rumors of higher death counts were untrue, state news agency TASS 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.

On Russian social media and in independent publications some accused Putin of bearing responsibility for fostering the negligent official culture that led to the fire, in which bureaucrats feel greater responsibility toward their superiors than to ordinary citizens.

On Tuesday evening, two vigils were held in Moscow, one called by authorities near the Kremlin and a second organized independently. Around a thousand people gathered at the second vigil, standing mostly in solemn quiet, but occasionally there were eddies of anger across the crowd. Some shouted for the Tuleyev to step down and some people held signs with slogans such as “Corruption kills children.” There were also chants of “Power must answer.”

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