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 and killed at least 64 people, most of them children.
Flags were lowered and entertainment events cancelled three days after the devastating blaze on Sunday in the western Siberian city of Kemerovo.
On Tuesday thousands of people gathered in Moscow and other cities to mourn the victims and vent their anger at the authorities after children were trapped in a locked cinema as the inferno spread through the mall.
The youngest victim according to an official list published by regional authorities was a two-year-old boy, while at least 19 of the 64 people who perished were under 10. Forty-one children died in the fire.
After a huge outpouring of grief and criticism on social media, President Vladimir Putin — who was this month reelected for a fourth term — on Tuesday visited the scene and upbraided officials at a televised meeting.
– Rare protests –
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.”
Officials have said that multiple safety rules were violated, the fire alarm system had not worked and staff did not follow correct emergency procedures, while witnesses reported that the exit to one cinema had been locked.
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.
Deputy Governor Sergei Tsivilev met protesters but accused a man — who lost his wife, sister and three young kids in the fire — of seeking “publicity from grief”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment Wednesday on the regional authorities’ actions, telling reporters that “Putin has said that it is hardly appropriate to issue hasty judgements”.
While Putin was in the city, he did not come onto the square to meet the protesters and met a group of locals separately.
– Teacher tried to save others –
In the Kemerovo region, relatives were holding the first funerals for victims as regional emergencies minister Alexander Mamontov said 27 bodies have 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 together in the mall cinema, RIA Novosti state news agency reported.
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,” while Orthodox Christian channel Spas aired a show called “Kemerovo: what can our prayers do?”
The front pages of most newspapers were published only in black and white, while Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid covered its front and back pages with photos of the victims.
In the upper house of parliament, senators dressed in black, and rose at the beginning of the session for a minute of silence to honour victims, Russian television showed.
Investigators have said the most likely cause of the fire, which broke out on the top floor of the mall, was an electrical fault.
Five people have been detained, including the head of the company that managed the building and the head of the company that serviced its fire alarms.
The authorities have opened criminal probes into causing death through negligence, breaches of fire safety and providing unsafe services.