By Polina Ivanova and Andrew Osborn
KEMEROVO/MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin flew to the scene of a deadly shopping mall fire in Siberia that killed 64 people and promised angry residents on Tuesday that those responsible for what he called criminal negligence would be harshly punished.
The fire, at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo, killed 41 children, according to the Interfax news agency, and the calamitous way it was handled has stirred anger and focused attention on corruption and lax fire safety standards.
Putin, re-elected only this month, laid flowers at a memorial to the victims in the coal-producing region about 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow, before chairing a meeting and declaring a national day of mourning be held on Wednesday.
“What’s happening here? This isn’t war, it’s not an unexpected methane explosion at a coal mine. People came to relax, children. We’re talking about demography and losing so many people,” Putin angrily told officials.
“Why? Because of some criminal negligence, because of slovenliness. How could this ever happen?,” he added. “The first emotion when hearing about the number of dead and dead children is not to cry but to wail. And when you listen to what has been said here, speaking honestly, other emotions arise.”
Investigators said fire exits had been illegally blocked, the public address system had not been switched on, the fire alarm system was broken, and children had been locked inside cinemas.
The fire swept through the upper floors of the shopping center, where a cinema complex and children’s play area were located, on Sunday afternoon.
Hundreds of angry protesters, many of them crying, gathered in central Kemerovo. The mayor, Ilya Seredyuk, tried to speak, but his words were often drowned out by chants calling on him to resign.
“Why don’t they tell us the truth?,” shouted one protester.
Many locals do not believe the official death toll of 64 and suspect that hundreds of people were killed in the blaze and that a cover-up is underway, something Putin has flatly denied.
Relatives of the victims say they have compiled a list of 85 people, most of them children, who are still missing.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny called on people to attend a protest event later on Tuesday in Moscow.
Public anger in Kemerovo was reflected in protesters’ placards.
“How many victims are there really,?” read one, while another suggested corrupt officials had taken a bribe to sign off on the mall’s fire safety.
“Vova and Aman to prison!” read another banner, referring to Putin and the local governor.
One senior regional official, Sergei Tsivilev, got down on his knees to apologize to the crowd.
Natalia and Sergei Agarkov, whose two children were killed in the tragedy along with their grandmother stood on the square holding photographs of their dead loved ones.
“Masha was 10, Kostya was eight,” Sergei told Reuters. “Masha … was really good at sport. She should have ran out, but everything was locked. I identified them yesterday. I didn’t see Kostya, but recognized him by his little boots.”
Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, told Putin the fire alarm system in the mall had been out of order since March 19 and that a security guard had not turned on the public address system to warn people to evacuate the building.
He said five people had already been detained.
Replying to Putin, Bastrykin said: “Most of the staff ran away and left children and parents and their children to their fate.”
“Those workers who should have been responsible for people’s safety, for organizing an evacuation, they were the first to run away,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov and Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Christian Lowe and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth)