Executive at fire-ravaged Russian shopping mall arrested

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the burnt facade of a shopping mall in Kemerovo, Russia March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Maksim Lisov

KEMEROVO, Russia (Reuters) – Russian police on Friday arrested an executive with the firm that owns a shopping mall where a fire last weekend killed 64 people, most of them children.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, the state body that investigates major crimes, said in a statement the executive, Yulia Bogdanova, had failed to address shortcomings in fire safety at the shopping mall.

Bogdanova is the general director of a firm called ОАО Kemerovo Confectionary Combine, the owner of the “Winter Cherry” mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo where the fire broke out on Sunday.

At the time, the top floor of the complex, where the fire started, was packed with families visiting a cinema and a children’s play area. Investigators said fire exits were blocked and the fire alarm system failed to function.

“The investigation established that Bogdanova, as the person responsible for fire safety, was repeatedly informed by subordinates about shortcomings in the building’s fire safety system.” It said Bogdanova did not deal with the shortcomings.

A lawyer who has acted for Bogdanova’s employer agreed to pass on to her Reuters questions about her management of the mall, but there was no reply. A woman who answered a phone number listed for Bogdanova said it was a wrong number.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

UK inquiry to examine Grenfell Tower fire but not broader social issues

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the Grenfell Tower, which was destroyed in a fatal fire, in London, Britain July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Tolga Akmen

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – A public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 80 people in June began on Tuesday with a mission to examine the cause of and response to the tragedy, but not broader issues such as social housing policy.

The destruction of the 24-storey social housing block, home to a poor, multi-ethnic community, in an inferno that spread with terrifying speed in the middle of the night shocked the nation and raised public anger over social inequalities.

Grenfell Tower was part of a deprived housing estate in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest areas in the country. The fire has prompted debate about the impact on poor communities of years of public spending cuts by Conservative-led governments.

The inquiry, led by retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, was announced by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to show she wanted the truth about the disaster to emerge after her initial response was seen by survivors as slow and insensitive.

The inquiry formally opened on Tuesday with the publication of its terms of reference. Moore-Bick will start hearings in September.

It will examine the cause and spread of the fire, the design, construction and refurbishment of the tower, fire regulations relating to high-rise buildings, whether they were complied with at Grenfell Tower, and the actions of the authorities before and after the tragedy.

But Moore-Bick said the inquiry would not delve into broader issues such as social housing policy and the relationship between the community and the authorities, even though many local people wanted it to.

That drew immediate criticism from the local member of parliament, Emma Dent Coad of the opposition Labour Party, who said it was precisely what the community had feared.

“We were told ‘no stone would be unturned’ but instead are being presented with a technical assessment which will not get to the heart of the problem: what effects if any the lack of investment into social housing had on the refurbishment project,” she said in a statement.

Moore-Bick said it would take too long to fully examine social housing policy issues when there was a need for the inquiry to quickly identify safety problems that may be putting lives at risk in other tower blocks.

May said the government would tackle the deeper issues in a different way.

“I am determined that the broader questions raised by this fire — including around social housing — are not left unanswered,” she said in a statement.

May said the housing minister, Alok Sharma, would personally meet as many social housing tenants as possible in the Grenfell Tower area and across Britain to help identify common concerns, and there would be further announcements about this shortly.

But Dent Coad rejected the assurance.

“We have no confidence whatever in the ability of Alok Sharma and a few politically compromised individuals to take on the task of answering this most important question,” she said.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry faces an uphill struggle in gaining the cooperation of those affected by the fire, many of whom are distrustful of the authorities and see Moore-Bick as a remote, establishment figure unlikely to relate to their lives.

During consultation meetings with the community in recent weeks, he was heckled several times.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alister Doyle)

U.S. cities enlist public’s help in wake of deadly Oakland fire

Two children place flowers at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the fatal warehouse fire in Oakland, California

By Rory Carroll and Dan Levine

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – In the days since a warehouse fire in Oakland, California, killed at least 36 people attending a party, cities across the United States have vowed to find ways to prevent such tragedies.

In Portland, Oregon, an elected leader wants to require sprinklers before a building can host a special event. In Los Angeles, a councilmember is calling on citizens to report unsafe buildings.

In Baltimore, officials reacted swiftly on Monday to a citizen complaint about an art space called the Bell Foundry, condemning the building and ousting its tenants after finding violations that included a lack of permits, use of flammables and removal of ceiling beams, said Chief Roman Clark, a fire department spokesman.

The two-story California building where at least 36 people died lacked both sprinklers and smoke alarms. Oakland officials had issued multiple violation notices on the warehouse property over the past several years for trash, debris and rodents, according to city building department records. It was unclear if the city was aware of more serious violations such as just two exterior doors and wooden pallets partially forming a makeshift stairway.

A crane removes debris from the site of a fatal warehouse fire in Oakland, California, U.S.

A crane removes debris from the site of a fatal warehouse fire in Oakland, California, U.S. December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

New York stepped up its enforcement of building safety codes following the 1990 Happy Land fire, which killed 87 people in an unlicensed dance club, said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who represents Queens and chairs the council’s fire committee.

“We’re seeing what’s happening there and it’s unbelievable. We want to make sure it doesn’t happen here or anywhere,” she said. “We should take this as a lesson and do our best as a country to make sure all of our cities are abiding by fire and safety regulations,” she said.

In Los Angeles, Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson on Tuesday asked the public to report potential problem residences. “Some people simply aren’t aware that they are living in a place that is as unsafe as it is,” he said.

Los Angeles, he said has many empty warehouses and abandoned buildings that are used for parties and concerts and by the homeless seeking shelter.

Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman said he wants more buildings to have sprinklers before holding gatherings. He also wants the public to tell the city about problems, as soaring rents have pushed people to live in unsafe conditions.

“We need to deputize the public as our inspectors too,” he said.

Arts organizations have also stepped up.

In Oakland, a group called Omni Commons will meet on Wednesday to see how they can help residents of makeshift spaces improve safety given an expected crackdown on building code violations, according to the group’s Facebook page.

A dance and circus art space called House of Yes in New York City will hold a fundraiser for Oakland victims, during which it will offer a fire-safety class.

In 2008, a non-fatal blaze destroyed the group’s former location, where 10 artists lived.

(Editing by Sue Horton and Lisa Shumaker)