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'I Saw The Children In The Morning' -- Village Mourns Classmates Lost To Kemerovo Fire

Two girls comfort each other as they cry near the site of a shopping-mall fire in the Siberian town of Kemerovo that left scores of people dead, many of them children.
Two girls comfort each other as they cry near the site of a shopping-mall fire in the Siberian town of Kemerovo that left scores of people dead, many of them children.

"I saw the children in the morning," a local resident told Russian state television. "They were all happy and left on a bus to the city to watch a movie."

As the city of Kemerovo looks for answers in the wake of a March 25 shopping-mall fire that killed 64 people, a village located a little more than 100 kilometers to the west is coming to grips with its own tragedy within the tragedy.

Of the child victims -- whose number could rise into dozens once all the victims are identified -- many were classmates from the village of Treshchevsky.

"The children were on a school holiday," another man said in the Channel One report. "They decided to go to the city to have fun.”

Treshchevsky's only middle school has confirmed that a group of at least 10 fifth-graders -- all 11 or 12 years old -- went on the school trip to Kemerovo.

The students from the Treshchevsky class were chaperoned by a teacher and two parents, but the adults reportedly chose not to accompany the group to watch a film being shown at the Zimnyaya Vishnya mall on March 25.

They reportedly dropped the children off at the mall's multiplex cinema and were exploring the shopping and entertainment complex, which includes a petting zoo and several restaurants, when the fire broke out.

Dozens Dead In Siberian Shopping Center Fire
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The fire broke out when the children were inside one of the cinema halls, where according to many witness accounts fire doors were blocked, leaving people trapped inside.

Among the children trapped inside the movie theater was Vika Pochankina, a 12-year-old Treshchevsky resident who made a last, desperate, phone call to her aunt.

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

While Russian authorities have confirmed that of the 64 killed, 25 have been identified, of which 13 are children. It could take several days until all the bodies are identified and a final list of victims is released.

Best Friends To The End

In the meantime, some are reaching their own conclusions when it comes to the Treshchevsky students who haven't been accounted for.

Vika is being remembered as a high-achiever, having received a special award from the regional governor’s offices, a photo of which she posted on her social media account.

Vika’s VKontakte page also includes a selfie with a group of children, accompanied by the post: "I love my classmates, it’s so much fun with them.”

Vika went to the Kemerovo cinema with her best friend, Veronika Ponushkina. The two friends often posted photos of them together on social media. Both are feared dead, according to Russian media.

According to some reports, at least eight of the victims are children from Treshchevsky, while the fate of the others in the group remains unknown.

A school administrator told RFE/RL on March 26 that parents and a representative of the school were checking hospitals and a morgue. The results of their search are unclear.

There are fears that the final death toll could rise.

The Interfax news agency reported on March 27 that a list based on information from relatives of apparent victims includes 85 people who allegedly have gone missing since the deadly incident.

The majority of those on the list are children, many between the age of 10 and 13, Interfax reported, quoting the newly-established group of relatives.

Recounting Daughter’s Last Words

Eyewitnesses said that the building's fire safety systems, including the sprinklers and security alarm didn’t work.

One eyewitness described the scene of mayhem where panicked visitors were running to safety through a crowded staircase.

"So many crying and screaming children," eyewitness Anna Zarechneva wrote on Instagram." Adults ran, pushing and pressing children."

Another eyewitness told RFE/RL that the operator of a children’s merry-go-round abandoned the ride when the fire started.

The "merry-go-round that was still moving with children on it," the eyewitness said.

Thousands of people gathered in Kemerovo on March 27 demanding answers from authorities and for those responsible to be punished.

Father Recounts Daughter's Last Words During Kemerovo Fire
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One grieving father told the protesters that he got a frantic phone call from his daughter, who was trapped inside a cinema hall, begging him to rescue her.

"She said: ‘Dad, I love you. I'm suffocating, I’m fainting."

The man said he tried to go and save his daughter but wasn't allowed to enter the burning building.

Written by Farangis Najibullah 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.