Blocked fire exits, a shut-down alarm system, and "glaring violations" of safety rules exacerbated the human toll of a fire that swept through a busy Siberian shopping mall, killing 64 people as panicked visitors jumped from windows and banged on doors in an attempt to escape, Russian investigators say.
An Investigative Committee statement on March 26 suggested that the effects of the fire that broke out at a shopping center in Kemerovo a day earlier could have been much milder if not for violations committed during construction of the mall and after it opened in 2013.
"Investigators have already received evidence pointing to glaring violations that led to such grave consequences," the statement from 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 statement came after Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov said that 64 people were killed by the fire in Kemerovo, about 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow. The official toll late on March 25 had been below 10, but it climbed as firefighters battled the blaze and worked their way through the shopping center.
Flames and smoke erupted anew at the mall on March 26, but Puchkov told journalists that 64 was the final death toll. Ten of the 44 people who sought medical treatment remained hospitalized, Petrenko said.
Out of 25 victims whose bodies have been identified, 13 are children, the emergency officials said. The youngest fire victims were only five, the TASS news agency reported.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately known and authorities launched a criminal investigation, the Investigative Committee said.
VIDEO appears to show the mall being engulfed in black smoke within seconds:
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.
A senior emergency official said on state TV early on March 26 that 41 children were believed to be missing, but the Investigative Committee did not say how many of those confirmed dead were children.
"An 11-year-old boy who jumped out of a fourth-floor window to save his life is the only survivor of his whole family. His mother, father, and a younger sibling all died," Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said.
Before the Investigatiove Committee issued its statement, Russian media quoted witnesses as saying that they heard no alarm and that many people found themselves trapped because exit doors were locked.
A video showed smoke quickly filling an open area. A woman wrote on Instagram that somebody shouted "fire!" while she was watching a movie but that the film played on as panicked people rushed for the only door that could be opened.
Videos posted on social media showed a man leaping or falling to the street after climbing out a window and another man inside the building, trying to break down a door in a stairwell as flames and smoke filled the area.
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.
Anna Kuznetsova, Russia's children's rights commissioner, said the fire was the result of incompetence and said the owners and managers of such shopping centers must prevent a repeat.
"[Officials in] other regions and the bosses of other malls must right now, without waiting for [routine] checks, ask themselves: Have we done everything we can to ensure something like this doesn't happen here?" Kuznetsova said in a statement.
There were few windows or doors in the shopping center, a former cake factory. Many such malls have been built in cities across Russia since the Soviet collapse of 1991.
President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to victims' loved ones and wished those injured a speedy recovery in a statement issued on March 25. The fire came one week after Putin secured a new six-year term in a presidential election.
Photos from inside the burned-out mall:
Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleyev had declared that families of people killed in the blaze would receive a payment of 1 million rubles ($17,500) in compensation for each fatality. A three-day period of mourning was declared in the region.
The Investigative Committee said the blaze appeared to have started in a hallway at a multiplex cinema in the shopping mall and that the "roof collapsed in two theaters in the cinema."
Other officials, however, said that it was not clear where the fire started or what caused it.
The Interfax news agency cited an unnamed local official source as saying it was probably caused by a short circuit, but other accounts said the cause could have been arson or an accident.
Regional Deputy Governor Vladimir Chernov said on March 25 that a child apparently set fire to the foam on a trampoline in a play area using a lighter.
On March 26, the Investigative Committee issued an unusual appeal to witnesses and survivors for information that might help "establish a more complete picture" of what happened.
The committee said about 120 people had been evacuated from the 1,500-square-meter shopping center, which is called Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) and also includes an entertainment complex, a petting zoo, and several restaurants. It opened in 2013.
On March 25, television footage showed smoke billowing from the building as fire crews worked to evacuate the multistory facility. People were also seen jumping from windows to escape the blaze.
"This shopping center on several floors was packed with people midday [on March 25],” one official said. “No one knows exactly how many people there were inside when the fire broke out."
Kemerovo is an industrial city and the capital of a coal-producing region of the same name.