People place toys and flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of a shopping mall fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia, on March 26 2018. Picture: REUTERS
People place toys and flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of a shopping mall fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia, on March 26 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Moscow — Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday the deadly fire in Kemerovo was a result of "criminal negligence", according to comments aired by state television from Kemerovo.

Russian authorities on Monday denounced what they called "flagrant violations" of safety norms that led to the deaths of at least 64 people, many of them children, in a fire at a busy shopping mall in an industrial city in Siberia.

Investigators looking into the fire that broke out on Sunday have said a security guard had turned off the public address system and exits had been illegally blocked — notably at a multiplex cinema where children were watching cartoons — at the Winter Cherry shopping centre in the Siberian city of Kemerovo.

"Investigators have already obtained proof of the flagrant violations that led to such serious consequences," Russia’s Investigative Committee said.

It said a criminal probe had been opened and five people had been arrested — including an official of the mall’s security firm who is suspected of deactivating the public address system when the fire broke out.

A woman speaks on her mobile phone at the scene of a fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia, on March 25 2018. Picture: REUTERS
A woman speaks on her mobile phone at the scene of a fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia, on March 25 2018. Picture: REUTERS

The local office of Russia’s emergency services ministry said the fire broke out on the top floor of the four-storey mall, causing floors and the roof to collapse.

Russian television showed images of thick black smoke pouring out of the roof of the mall, which was packed with people on Sunday afternoon when the blaze broke out.

"Whole classes of children from nearby villages were there, they were locked in (the cinema)," a witness who gave his name as Konstantin told Business Radio FM.

Alexander Lillevyali, who lost 11-year-old twin daughters and a five-year-old daughter in the fire, told Meduza news site that the girls called him to say they could not open the cinema’s door.

"My daughter kept calling me. I just shouted to her to try to get out of the cinema but I couldn’t do anything, there were already flames in front of me," he said.

Locals told RBK newspaper that the cinema often locked its doors to stop people going in without tickets because it was understaffed.

The Investigative Committee said the roof had collapsed in two theatres of the cinema in the blaze, which erupted at about 4pm (9am GMT) on Sunday.

Witnesses told Russian television that some people did not hear alarms or did not take them seriously, and that the fire took hold very quickly, leaving many children separated from their parents.

One witness, Anastasia Klepova, told Rossiya 24 television: "The evacuation signal only went off twice. We didn’t believe in the evacuation at first."

Another witness told Rossia 24 news channel: "There was no announcement. People just started running towards the exit. Then there was a smell of burning and we began to realise that it wasn’t a drill."

In CCTV images shown by the Life TV channel, black smoke is seen quickly engulfing a fleeing crowd.

"People started running around, it was just awful. There were a lot of children, children without parents," said witness Klepova.

Emergency Services Minister Vladimir Puchkov said the death toll of 64 was final and included six victims still buried under the rubble.

The local spokesman of the emergency situations ministry, Boris Dediukhin, told the Ria Novosti news agency that at least nine children were among the dead.

Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said the most seriously injured survivor was an 11-year-old boy, who jumped from the top floor to escape the fire, which killed all his family. There was hope for his survival, she said.

She said an 18-year-old boy was also seriously injured after jumping from the top floor, while nine other people were suffering from smoke inhalation.

Crowds of people came to the scene to lay flowers in tribute to the victims of the deadliest blaze in Russia in recent years.

Putin expressed condolences, as did Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, EU president Donald Tusk and the US State Department.

Local authorities have announced three days of mourning in the Siberian region, starting on Tuesday. The prosecutor-general’s office said all of the country’s shopping malls with entertainment areas would be checked for fire safety.

AFP and Reuters

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