Kemerovo (Russia) (AFP) – Russia on Wednesday held a national day of mourning and buried the first victims of a fire that ravaged a busy shopping centre killing 64 people, most of them children.
Flags were lowered and entertainment events cancelled three days after Sunday’s devastating fire in the western Siberian city of Kemerovo, one of the deadliest recorded in Russia over the past century.
The youngest victim was a two-year-old boy, while at least 19 of the 64 people who perished were under 10, said a list published by regional authorities. In total 41 children died in the fire.
A criminal investigation has been opened and five people have been detained over the incident amid public anger over blatant violations reported by investigators including non-functioning fire alarms and locked cinema doors.
President Vladimir Putin — who was this month re-elected for a fourth term — on Wednesday told the top investigator in charge of the probe to check “all the versions” and said many questions remained unanswered, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
“The fire alarm hadn’t worked for a week. Why?” Putin told Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin, also querying why a public warning system was not switched on, why doors were locked and why flammable materials were used in construction.
Putin condemned rumours that the real toll was much higher, blaming these on bogus stories posted on social networks, including from abroad, and warned against attempts to “sow distrust.”
“We definitely must not allow this in any circumstances,” said Putin, who has said he does not surf the Internet.
Russia on Wednesday announced a criminal probe into hate crime after an obscure Ukrainian prank caller posted videos on YouTube claiming hundreds died.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused the authorities of scapegoating outside forces instead of focusing on rampant official corruption.
“These people… were killed by corruption and for me that is as clear as day,” he wrote on his blog, saying fire safety officials regularly “extort bribes.”
– Rare protests –
Putin visited Kemerovo on Tuesday after a huge outpouring of public grief and criticism and upbraided officials at a televised meeting.
But many observers said the Kremlin’s reaction was insufficient and belated.
“The authorities were late in announcing mourning,” political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told Vedomosti business daily.
“Possibly they didn’t want to spoil the positive mood after the elections and there was hope that the tragedy would not turn out to be so large-scale.”
Regional authorities have come in for particular criticism, since the veteran regional governor Aman Tuleyev — who lost a young relative in the fire — has not visited the scene nor met angry residents.
On Tuesday, Kemerovo residents packed the main square in a rare protest, some holding placards and shouted slogans calling for the sacking of Tuleyev and Putin.
Thousands of people also gathered in Moscow and other cities to mourn the victims and vent their anger at the authorities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment Wednesday on the regional authorities’ actions.
“Putin has said that it is hardly appropriate to issue hasty judgements,” he said.
– Teacher tried to save others –
In the Kemerovo region, relatives held the first funerals for victims as regional emergencies minister Alexander Mamontov said 27 bodies had been identified.
Several hundred people attended the funeral of 57-year-old Nadezhda Agarkova and her two grandchildren Konstantin, 8, and Maria, 10, who died in one of the mall’s cinemas.
“These are our children, our pupils,” the children’s teacher Svetlana Sazheva said in televised remarks outside the church, adding the children who died were “top students and well brought up.”
Dozens of pupils of Tatiana Darsaliya, an English teacher who died, attended a memorial service in a city cathedral, RIA Novosti reported. She had saved her daughter from the burning cinema but died after going back in to save others, pupils said.
Television broadcasts carried a black ribbon on the screen or a message “Kemerovo — we mourn.”
The front pages of some newspapers were published in black and white, while Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid covered its front and back pages with photos of the victims.
Investigators have said the most likely cause of the fire, which broke out on the top floor of the mall, was an electrical fault.
The authorities have opened criminal probes into causing death through negligence, breaches of fire safety and providing unsafe services.
A court on Wednesday ruled that the head of the company that managed the shopping centre, a director of the company that owned the building, and a security guard who failed to trigger the public warning system must remain in custody until May 25 as well as the director of the company that developed the fire safety system.
Russian prosecutors have ordered checks into fire safety at all shopping centres with leisure facilities.