KEMEROVO (Russia) • Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared a day of national mourning today, after a fire at a shopping mall in Siberia killed 64 people, Interfax news agency reported yesterday.
Mr Putin flew to the scene of the fire on Tuesday and promised angry residents that those responsible for what he called criminal negligence would be harshly punished.
The fire, at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo, killed 41 children, according to Interfax, and the calamitous way it was handled has stirred anger and focused attention on corruption and lax fire safety standards.
Mr Putin laid flowers at a makeshift memorial to the victims in the coal-producing region about 3,600km east of Moscow, before chairing a meeting of top officials.
"What's happening here? This isn't war, it's not an unexpected methane explosion at a coal mine. People came to relax, children," Mr Putin, visibly angry, told the meeting. "Why? Because of some criminal negligence, because of slovenliness. How could this ever happen?"
The fire swept through the mall's upper floors, where a cinema complex and children's play area were located, on Sunday afternoon. Investigators said fire exits were illegally blocked, the public address system not switched on, the fire alarm system broken, and children locked inside cinemas. Many staff responsible for public safety fled when the fire broke out.
Hundreds of angry protesters, many crying, gathered in central Kemerovo yesterday morning. Mayor Ilya Seredyuk tried to speak, but his words were often drowned out by chants calling on him to resign.
Many locals do not believe the official death toll and suspect hundreds were killed and a cover-up is under way. Relatives of victims say they have compiled a list of 85 people, mostly children, who are still missing.