MOSCOW • Russian investigators looking into a fire that killed at least 64 people, including children, at a busy shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo yesterday said a security guard had turned off the fire alarm system and that exits had been illegally blocked.
Sunday's fire, one of the deadliest in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union, swept through the upper floors of the Winter Cherry shopping centre where a cinema complex and children's play area were located. Dozens of children were feared to be among the dead.
President Vladimir Putin, re-elected two weekends ago, has yet to speak publicly about the tragedy, which has stirred deep anger in Kemerovo, a coal-producing region about 3,600km east of Moscow.
The Kremlin issued a statement saying Mr Putin "expressed his deep condolences to the relatives and loved ones of those who died".
Russia's Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, said it was trying to bring in the mall's owner for questioning and wanted to detain a security guard who had turned off the fire alarm system after learning of the blaze.
"Serious violations (of the law) took place when the mall was being built and when it was functioning. The fire exits were blocked," Ms Svetlana Petrenko, a spokesman for the committee, said in a statement. She said investigators, who have opened a criminal investigation into the blaze, were looking into other possible violations. Four people have already been detained, including the owners and lessees of outlets inside the mall.
Emergency services said they had extinguished the fire, but later said it had reignited in places, and that rescuers were struggling to recover bodies beneath smouldering rubble. It was unclear if any people were still unaccounted for.
Witnesses told Russian media the fire alarm and sprinklers had failed to function and that many people had found themselves trapped because exit doors were locked.
Health Minister Veronika Skortsova said from the scene that 11 people were in hospital, including an 11-year-old boy in a serious condition. Russian media said he had leapt from a window and that his parents had been killed. An unofficial list of those missing circulating on media included more than 20 children, some as young as five.
Witnesses told Russian media the fire alarm and sprinklers had failed to function and that many people had found themselves trapped because exit doors were locked. Video footage from inside the mall after the fire broke out showed a group of people in a smoke-filled staircase trying to smash a fire exit door, which was jammed.
State TV said the mall had opened in 2013, and official documents showed it had last undergone a fire safety check in 2016. The Kremlin rejected criticism from some journalists that state TV had been slow to publicise the fire. Mourners left flowers near the scene of the blaze.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang sent their condolences to Mr Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev respectively, China's Xinhua news agency reported.
The fire is thought to be the deadliest since 2009 when 156 people were killed in the city of Perm when an indoor pyrotechnics display at a nightclub went wrong.