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Kemerovo Fire: 'They Didn't Open The Fire Exit. Was There One?'

Smoke rises above the multistory shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo on March 25.
Smoke rises above the multistory shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo on March 25.

Milana Tatarchukova was heading to a birthday party at the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping center when she saw the thick black smoke.

Amid the chaos that ensued as mall patrons tried to escape the March 25 fire that left at least 64 people dead in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, one image stands out.

"The most horrifying scene was a merry-go-round that was still moving with children on it," Tatarchukova told the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service. "The operator abandoned it when the fire started. Children were still going around."

Tatarchukova said the shopping center, which includes an entertainment complex, a petting zoo, and several restaurants, was packed with people on a Sunday afternoon.

Tatarchukova said the children on the merry-go-round were eventually rescued by a parent who managed to bring the ride to a halt and helped the children unfasten their safety belts and evacuate.

She said that as they left the mall, "a man jumped from the window and hit his head on the asphalt before our eyes."

Tatarchukova added that as she and her family left they warned others heading to the mall. "But no one would believe us because there wasn't any fire alarm," she said.

Doors Were Shut

Eyewitness Anna Zarechneva wrote on her Instagram account that she was watching a movie with her husband and their 4-year-old son when "the door opened and someone screamed, 'Fire, fire.'"

Zarechneva's post, which was accompanied by video she shot, described how the family and other moviegoers left the cinema in panic. "We couldn't hear any fire alarm," she wrote. "The crowd was leaving through a narrow door. They didn't open the fire exit. Was there one?"

"While leaving the cinema hall we saw that a children's playground on the second floor was completely covered with thick black smoke."

"It was impossible to breathe," Zarechneva wrote.

She described the scene as people rushed toward a crowded staircase as they attempted to flee the burning building. "So many crying and screaming children," she wrote. "Adults ran, pushing and pressing children."

'Tell My Mom I Loved Her'

Many Russian social-media users are posting images of 12-year-old Vika Pochankina, who was inside the mall with several of her classmates and remains unaccounted for.

Her aunt told Komsomolskaya Pravda that she received a phone call from Vika in which she said she was trapped inside the mall's cinema.

"At 4:11 p.m., immediately after the fire started, I got a phone call from the cinema, from my niece, Vika. She told me that 'everything is burning, the doors are blocked. I can't get out of here, I can't breathe.' I told her: 'Vika, take off everything and cover your nose with your clothes.'"

"Vika told me: 'Tell my mom that I loved her. Tell everyone that I loved them.' The phone went silent after this. I'm calling her, the calls are getting through, but there is no answer."

The woman told Komsomolskaya Pravda on the evening of March 25 that the family still did not know Vika's fate and whereabouts, and "desperately hope" she survived.

Vika was among a group of students from the small town of Treshchevsky who were on a school trip visiting Kemerovo along with a teacher and two parents.

It remains unclear how many of the children from Treshchevsky survived the fire. The school administration told RFE/RL on March 26 that parents and a representative of the school were checking hospitals and a morgue.

According to preliminary investigations, the blaze started on the upper floors of the shopping center, where a multiplex cinema, restaurants, a bowling alley, and a children's playground are located.

The mall also houses a petting zoo with some 200 animals, all of which were killed.

With reporting by the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.