A fire that tore through a shopping center killing at least 64 people, including many children, was caused by “criminal negligence and carelessness,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday.
The blaze broke out at the Zimnyaya Vishnya — or Winter Cherry — shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo Sunday afternoon, when the building was packed with shoppers and movie goers.
Investigators said the mall’s fire exits were blocked and an alarm system turned off, and witnesses described panicked scenes as shoppers attempted to flee the building.
Putin laid flowers at a memorial for the victims in Kemerovo Tuesday and offered his condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the “horrible tragedy.”
“What is happening here — this was not a combat situation, not an unexpected methane outburst in a mine,” he said.
“People came to rest, children. We talk about demographics and lose so many people because of what? Because of criminal negligence and carelessness.”
The Kemerovo fire is one of the deadliest blazes in Russia in recent years, according to state media.
“It’s just a horror … it’s hard to describe what happened today … it was a normal day off,” said eyewitness Anna Zarechneva on Instagram.
She was in the mall’s cinema when the fire broke out, and said moviegoers had little warning until the blaze was well underway.
“No fire alarm to be heard. The crowd broke through one narrow door. The second exit for some reason was closed,” Zarechneva wrote.
“Having jumped out of the cinema, we saw dense black pungent smoke, which completely filled the children’s playground and the 2nd cinema hall — they were completely invisible. There was already no air.”
Preliminary investigations point to the fire having broken out outside the cinema. Four people have been detained in connection with the fire, authorities said.
“Serious violations were allowed, both when the shopping center opened and after, during its operation. Fire exits in the shopping center were blocked,” said Svetlana Petrenko, spokeswoman for the Russian Investigative Committee.
Early images from the scene showed thick black smoke pouring from the shopping center, a former sweet factory, as firefighters continued to battle the flames after dark.
As around 100 people were evacuated, others were trapped by the fire inside. Witnesses told Russian media they saw people jumping from the windows in desperate efforts to escape.
The shopping mall, which has an overall area of 23,000 square meters, opened in 2013. It has a parking lot for 250 cars, shops, a bowling, a children’s center, a movie theater, and a petting zoo, according to state media.