Dozens of children are feared to be among those killed in a devastating fire at a shopping mall in Siberia, as Russian authorities announced the death toll from the blaze has climbed to 64 and police detained the mall's director amid accusations there were serious fire safety violations at the building.
The fire engulfed the upper floors of the Winter Cherry Mall on Sunday in the city of Kemerovo about 1,900 miles from Moscow, starting around a children's play area and cinema that turned into an inferno. Authorities have not said how many children were among the dead, but on Sunday, the country's emergencies ministry had said 40 children were missing after the fire.
Russian police said another 52 people had been injured, with 12 hospitalized.
The cause of the fire has yet to be established, but investigators on Monday said they had detained 5 people, including the mall's director, as part of a criminal investigation into whether fire safety violations had led to the disaster. Russia's Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, said in a statement that it had found "serious violations", noting that many of the fire doors in the mall had been blocked, trapping people. The Committee said it had also detained a security guard who had turned off the fire alarm when it sounded.
Videos shot on phones inside the mall showed chaos as people fled the fire in panicked crowds and witnesses said there had been no organised evacuation. In multiple accounts in Russian news media people said they had heard no alarm and that many only realised there was a fire when they already saw thick smoke and flames.
Witnesses and authorities said that large groups of children had been inside a two-screen movie theater on the mall's fourth floor when the fire broke out. But one of the theater's auditoriums had been locked, trapping people inside. As smoke seeped into the room, children made desperate calls to their relatives, telling them they couldn't get out. "We are burning," one young woman wrote on social media. "This may be goodbye."
Alexander Lillevyali told the Latvia-based Russian news site Meduza that he had dropped off his three young daughters-- two aged 11 and one, five-- at the movie theater. Shortly afterwards he received a phone call from one of his daughters telling him that she and her sister were trapped inside the auditorium filling with smoke. Lillevyali ran back into the burning building and tried to reach them on the fourth floor.
“I ran up the stairs, someone pushed a wet rang into my hand, I covered my nose with it," he told Meduza. "When I’d run up to the fourth floor, I broke a window so that the draught was from above, and then I fell. I began to crawl, I understood that I didn’t have any strength left, I’d breathed in so much carbon monoxide, that I was about to fall unconscious. My daughter was constantly calling and calling me. I just shouted in the phone for her to try to get out of the hall, but I couldn’t do anything— the fire was already in front of me.”
He ran back down to find fire fighters who were entering the building. He tried to lead them back upstairs but he said they followed another man to tackle the fire elsewhere despite his pleas. Meanwhile, Lillevyali's wife, Olga Lillevyali arrived outside the mall and could only stand while it burnt. "Our children were burning, and we just watched," she told Meduza.
There were conflicting accounts of why the movie theater had been locked. In one auditorium, some people succeeded in fleeing, but in the other the door never opened; everyone inside was killed.
In another part of the building, at least two young boys jumped from windows three stories up. Both survived, according to Russia's health ministry, and were in a serious but stable condition in hospital.
The blaze gutted the fourth floor entirely and much of the roof of the building has collapsed. On Monday, part of the smouldering building briefly caught fire again before it was extinguished.
Rescue workers have now pulled dozens of bodies from the building, while devastated parents were gathered in a sports hall nearby. The process of identifying bodies has begun, authorities said.
Russia has suffered a number of catastrophic blazes over the past decade-- in 2013, 38 people died in a fire at a psychiatric hospital near Moscow and in 2009, 153 people were killed when a nightclub in the Siberian city of Perm burnt down-- and that in Kemerovo was one of the most deadly in recent Russian history. It has prompted an outpouring of horror and grief in the country.
There was also intense anger over how the mall had been permitted to operate with so many safety violations and many voiced suspicions that officials that had certified the building must have been bribed. Police have not made any reference to possible corruption so far.
Regional authorities have declared three days of mourning in Kemerovo. Russia’s main state channel, Channel 1, said it was canceling entertainment programs in view of the catastrophe, TASS, the state news agency, reported.