'Anyone Would Do The Same': Tajik Shopkeepers Save Lives In Kemerovo 

People stand near toys, flowers, balloons, and other items as they gather to commemorate the victims of a shopping mall fire on the day of national mourning in Kemerovo on March 28.

"It was just an ordinary day and I was at work in our store at Zimnyaya Vishnya," Farzon Salimov recalls. "Suddenly, my nephew, who works at the shopping center, called me and said a fire had started on the fourth floor."

Within minutes the scene at the mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo became chaotic, with smoke and fire filling the building and prompting visitors to run for safety. In the end, 64 people would lose their lives in the March 25 fire.

"First, we helped the customers in our shop to get out of the building," Salimov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service by telephone. "Then I saw that there were so many people gathered near the escalators, unable to get out through the main door."

Salimov, a native of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, owns a business on the second floor of the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) mall where he and four other Tajik workers sell shoes and clothes.

"There were many women, children, and elderly among the crowd stuck there," Salimov told RFE/RL on March 28. "The five of us helped them to get out of the building through our shop and by another door."

Salimov recalls running to the other side of the building along with his co-worker, Mahmud Khojaev, and several others who were helping to rescue people in the shopping complex.

The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation screen grab shows the consequences of a fire inside the multistory shopping center after a fire, in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, on March 27, 2018.

Salimov, 32, estimates that he and co-workers may have helped up to 50 people get to safety.

He says that the worst sight was seeing two people in wheelchairs stuck near elevators as crowds of people around them rushed out of the burning building.

Salimov says he and Khojaev pushed the two outside to safety as the building was rapidly filling with thick smoke, making it nearly impossible to breath or see.

After that, he says, they were unable to reenter the building.

Salimov, who first came to Russia in 2003, is one of hundreds of thousands of Tajiks who work in Russia.

He says he began working as a seasonal laborer until he eventually managed to open his own business at the Zimnyaya Vishnya mall.

Salimov hasn’t returned to his store since the deadly fire.

"We didn't even take the money from the till. We only wanted to save people's lives," he says. "We did what anyone would do in that situation. It's just a normal thing."

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Abdullo Ashurov