KEMEROVO, Russia -- Thousands of Russians have demonstrated in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, demanding answers and calling for the regional government's resignation as grief mixed with anger after a fire at a busy shopping mall killed 64 people, many of them children.
The crowd swelled from a few hundred people to several thousand filling a central square in the city, where President Vladimir Putin traveled early on March 27 and promised to punish the guilty in his first public comments on the disaster.
Rallies in solidarity for the victims of the mall blaze were held in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities later in the day. In the Russian capital, people laid flowers on Pushkin Square at the statue of the famous Russian poet.
Amid growing public ire over what was seen as a incompetent response to the fast-moving fire and a callous attitude displayed by the authorities in its wake, Putin signed a decree declaring March 28 a nationwide day of mourning.
Protesters in Kemerovo held signs with slogans such as "Corruption kills!" and "Resign!" and "Tell the truth!" while others questioned the official death toll in the fire, which struck while families were spending Sunday afternoon at the mall on March 25 -- watching films, shopping, or playing games in an entertainment area that filled with smoke in seconds after the fire broke out.
Demonstrators demanded the ouster of regional Governor Aman Tuleyev and a meeting with Putin, who extended his rule by six years with nearly 77 percent of the vote, according to official results from a presidential election one week before the tragedy.
One poster called for the jailing of Putin and Tuleyev, who has been governor of the coal-mining region in central Siberia since 1997.
Amid accounts of missing children and desperate phone calls from a 11-year-old girl trapped with her two sisters in a movie theater in the mall, a list of victims posted at a headquarters set up by relatives indicated that 41 children were among the dead.
Speaking through a microphone, one man at the rally recounted his unsuccessful attempt to save his daughter, saying rescue workers forced him back after he climbed to the fourth floor to find her while speaking to her on a mobile phone.
"She screamed, 'I'm here, Papa, here!' I said: 'Lie down on the floor, breathe! Hold on, don't die!'" he said. Shortly afterward, he went on, "She said: 'Papa, I love you. I'm suffocating, I'm fainting.'"
Kemerovo residents release white balloons in memory of those killed in shopping mall inferno (via Current Time TV):
Putin, who had remained silent as the death toll mounted on March 26, after a brief written statement from the Kremlin the day before, traveled to Kemerovo early in the morning and laid flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the mall.
Echoing the words of angry residents, he blamed "criminal negligence" and "carelessness" for the disaster and promised that those found responsible would be punished.
"What is happening [in our country]? This is not combat operations, not a sudden methane-gas leak in a mine. People came to relax, children [came]," he said in televised comments at a meeting with senior regional officials and emergency chiefs.
"We talk about demography and we are losing so many people -- why? Because of criminal negligence, slovenliness," Putin said. "How could this have happened?"
Putin's 18 years in power as president or prime minister have been marked by deadly disasters that are frequently blamed on corruption and carelessness.
Critics say that while Putin has taken numerous steps to strengthen the Kremlin's grip on Russia, he has been unable to establish the kind of control that could curb the graft and negligence that can lead to accidents or increase their human toll.
Investigators have said that at the mall in Kemerovo, fire exits were blocked, the public address system had been shut off by a guard, and the fire alarm system was out of service.
Meeting later with a group of local residents that included relatives of the fire's victims, Putin said: "Have no doubt: All those who are guilty will be punished."
He said that 100 investigators were on the scene, led by federal Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin.
Kemerovo authorities had earlier announced three days of mourning in the region, but many Russians voiced dismay on social media that the Kremlin was not treating the fire as a disaster on a national scale.
Critics have also accused state media of trying to sweep the disaster under the rug, at least initially, by giving it less coverage than they believe was warranted.
Putin also visited injured victims in a hospital in Kemerovo, but he did not meet with the thousands of protesters on the central square in front of the regional administration building.
Deputy regional Governors Sergei Tsivilyov and Vladimir Chernov, as well as Kemerovo Mayor Ilya Seredyuk, came out of the building and promised to update the people about the situation and investigation.
Video from Putin's meeting with officials showed Tuleyev saying that the protesters numbered "about 200" and that they "are not relatives of the dead but constant troublemakers."
His remarks contrasted with condolences that poured in from around the world, undeterred by a spike in already high tension following what Western countries say was Russia's poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in Britain with a deadly nerve agent. Russia denies responsibility.
Pope Francis on March 26 sent a telegram saying he was praying for the victims and their families. Similar sentiments were sent from Brazil and China, as well as Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, which had just announced the expulsion of a total of more than 100 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
While authorities have not raised the death toll from the fire since March 26, they said the number of people injured in the blaze rose overnight to 60, of whom 15 were hospitalized.
Of the 25 dead who have been identified, 13 were children, authorities said. They said identification of other victims may require DNA and could take two weeks.
Investigative Committee chief Bastrykin said on March 27 that the fire started in a play-and-entertainment area on the fourth floor of the building, a former cake factory that has been renovated repeatedly since it was built in 1968 and opened as a shopping mall in 2013.
There are "two theories" about the cause, he said: "It could be a short circuit caused by bad wiring, or the theory we have less confidence in: the use of an open flame."
On March 26, the federal Investigative Committee said they found "glaring violations" of safety rules at the mall, such as blocked fire exits, that increased the human toll from the fire in Kemerovo, about 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow.
"Investigators have already received evidence pointing to glaring violations that led to such grave consequences," a statement from Russian Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said.
In addition to long-standing safety violations, "it turns out that fire exits were blocked," Petrenko said. She also said that authorities are considering arresting a security guard "who turned off the alarm system upon receiving a signal about the fire."
The Investigative Committee said on March 27 that the cause of the blaze was most likely a short circuit, and a criminal investigation is under way.
Four people have been detained for questioning, including the heads of the company that managed the shopping center and the company that rented the space where the fire is believed to have started, the committee said.
Survivors and witnesses said that they heard no alarm and that many people found themselves trapped because exit doors were locked.
The fatal fire drew an outpouring of grief and sympathy from Russians and people abroad on social media. A photograph from Kemerovo showed dozens of people lining up in the snow to give blood.
Negligence, cost-cutting, corruption, and the thwarting of safety rules are blamed for causing or aggravating the human toll from blazes in Russia, where the death rate from fires is far higher than in most Western countries.
According to figures from the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, there were 10,068 fire deaths in Russia in 2014 and 3,275 in the United States, whose population is roughly twice that of Russia.