Protesters seek officials’ ouster in Russian mall fire
Moscow – Fuming with anger, thousands of Russians rallied for more than 10 hours Tuesday in a Siberian city, demanding the ouster of regional officials for a shopping mall fire that killed at least 64 people.
President Vladimir Putin, on a trip to the city of Kemerovo, scolded officials for neglecting safety rules that could have prevented the tragedy.
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. Witnesses reported that fire alarms were silent and many doors were locked. Many of the victims were children who died in a locked movie theater after making desperate calls for help.
Putin arrived early Tuesday, laying flowers at the makeshift memorial to the victims outside the mall and meeting with officials. He did not show up at the protest in front of the regional government’s headquarters, but met with some demonstrators at the city’s morgue.
“Hearing about so many children who died fills you with a desire to not simply cry but to wail,” the somber-faced Putin said. “We lost so many people because of criminal negligence and sloppiness.”
Putin noted the highly combustible materials used to convert the mall from a Soviet-era confectionary factory and the absence of a functioning fire safety system, saying that investigators will track down all those responsible.
Emergency officials reported that 58 bodies have been recovered and that rescue workers were still searching for six more in the city that is 3,000 1,900 miles east of Moscow. They said 41 of the victims were children.
One protester at the rally, Igor Vostrikov, addressed deputy governor Sergei Tsivilyov, saying the families of the victims think the death toll is much higher than authorities have stated because the entire movie theater burnt down.
“We’re not calling for blood,” he said. “The children are dead, you can’t give them back. We need justice.”
When Tsivilyov dismissed the comments as “a PR stunt,” Vostrikov shouted that he has lost his wife, sister and three daughters, aged 2, 5 and 7, in the fire.
“They died because they were locked in a movie theater,” Vostrikov told the Dozhd television station. “They were calling from there, asking for help: ‘We’re locked in, we’re suffocating!’ No one helped because when the blaze broke out, everyone ran away.”
The impromptu protest reflected residents’ deep frustration with the official response to the tragedy. The local governor has still not visited the site of the fire or met with the relatives, and Putin waited a day before traveling to Kemerovo and declaring nationwide mourning.
Facing public outrage, the Kremlin issued a statement Tuesday, declaring Wednesday a day of mourning.