On Sunday afternoon, black smoke filled up the “Winter Cherry” shopping mall in the Russian city of Kemerovo in Southwest Siberia. Hundreds of kids were trapped inside the movie theaters, bowling alleys and playrooms, at the daycare and on the skating rink. Pictures of missing victims and lists of their names, posted online, included dozens of children.
Desperate parents, who were still looking for their children on Monday, are saying that authorities have been lying to them and hiding the real scope of the tragedy from the rest of Russia.
All fires are horrible—but what happened in Kemerovo is simply impossible to comprehend. The doors of the cinema theater, where children were watching Sherlock Gnome, were blocked; dozens of kids were simply locked up in the burning building. Vika, one of the victims, wrote a text message to her aunt Evgenia from the locked theater: “Everything is burning, the doors are blocked. I can’t go out, I can’t breathe.” Another girl, Maria Moroz, managed to send three messages within one minute. They said: “We are burning. I love you. All of you. Perhaps this is a goodbye.”
On Monday, many wondered why President Vladimir Putin had not rushed to see the tragedy with his own eyes. “This is just the same negligence as what saw during Putin’s reaction to the Kursk submarine catastrophe in August 2000,” an opposition leader, former MP Dmitry Gudkov, told The Daily Beast. “The Kremlin will now look to blame the businessmen—but what Putin really needs to do is to fire the governor and all law enforcement bosses in Kemerovo,” Gudkov added.
Russia has not seen so many child victims since the terror attack on Beslan school, which killed more than 300 people, including 186 children. “Nobody believes the official reports about 64 people killed at the mall, as there were at least 700 people on the 4th floor, which is like a maze. It is hard to find your way out,” Sergei Gavrilenko, a journalist of a local newspaper, told The Daily Beast. “We hear various figures of more than 170 victims.”
Gavrilenko said that on Monday, pedestrians in Kemerovo, a hard-working industrial region, did not smile and many women cried openly. “People believe that authorities deliberately are hiding the true number of victims from us, not to spread panic. I guess this a right thing to do, otherwise it its too terrifying to live on,” Gavrilenko added.
In 2009, a fire killed 153 people at an overcrowded nightclub in a Russian city of Perm; authorities at the time called it the biggest fire in 100 years. The tragedy was a result of hundreds of safety violation, which unfortunately did not teach Russian authorities any lessons. At the Kemerovo mall, none of the witnesses could hear the fire alarm in the building. Firemen managed to get inside the building only after the fire killed dozens of people.
Sergie Buriak, a witness of the tragedy, tried his best to put the true picture together in his video blog. “The real number of victims is much higher than what the show us on TV,” Buriak said in his video addressing on Monday.
One of the witnesses told Echo of Moscow radio station that the central morgue in Kemerovo allegedly required family members to sign a paper about secrecy, so there would be no leak of the real aftermath. The Daily Beast spoke with two witnesses, describing the situation around the morgue as “chaos” and “awful despair.”
By Monday afternoon, dozens of people had received a text message on their cell phones, calling them to join a street protest in front of the city administration building on Tuesday morning. “Let’s ask our authorities why that building had got permits for exploitation, why the door to the cinema theater was locked, why it took the ministry of emergency situation 40 minutes to take people off the roof,” the message said. Although the author was anonymous, people shared the message.
Kemerovo region has had the same governor, Aman Tuliyev since 1997. On Monday Internet bloggers discussed who should be blamed and punished—the irresponsible staff of the shopping mall or unprofessional fire fighters, who were too slow to evacuate the victims. “Kemerovo’s governor Tuliyev is responsible for the fire and Putin is responsible for not allowing free elections in the region, for keeping that corrupt governor in one place for so long,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast.