As rescuers continue to search the burned-out shopping mall in the city of Kemerovo, many have been frantically trying to reach their relatives, including children who were in the mall’s cinema or play area when the fire started.
Some 37 people were killed in the blaze, the Russian Investigative Committee has confirmed. At least 11 children were among the victims.
Amid conflicting reports, some have described the source of the fire as the children’s playground, suggesting that the trampoline there caught fire after a child allegedly misused a lighter. Another version suggests that electrical wiring at the playground had short-circuited.
Reports from witnesses have described panic as people realized there was a fire spreading, with many saying on social media that there were no fire alarms or loudspeaker warnings, and that people had to find their own way through the top floor of the mall, which was already filled with smoke. Several hundred people, including many children, were in the mall at the time.
Tragically, some reportedly had left their children unattended in one of the mall’s cinema halls or at the playground.
The fire, which broke out on Sunday afternoon, was finally contained some 12 hours later, after engulfing some 1,600 square meters. The building sustained severe damage, its roof and floors partially collapsing.
Some 43 people were injured in the blaze, according to the emergency services, and 37 remain hospitalized. Some 69 people, including 40 children, were said to be missing after the fire.
Fears are growing that almost an entire class of primary school children may have perished in the blaze. Eight kids from a school outside Kemerovo were visiting the city on an excursion with a teacher, who led them to watch a cartoon show at the shopping mall. Russian media reports suggest that she chose to have a stroll through the mall and left the children at the cinema, from which they apparently couldn’t find their way out.
Some of the children trapped in the mall reportedly phoned their parents or contacted their friends on social media. A particularly chilling message circulating online was allegedly left by a 13-year-old girl who wrote “We are on fire. Possibly, farewell,” in a screenshot posted on Russian social media network VKontakte. The teen was listed as missing in unofficial lists posted online.
‘No fire alarms, no warning’
When the blaze erupted, witness Anna Zarechneva was at the mall with her husband and little son. Describing their ordeal in an Instagram post, she said there was no fire alarm, that lights were not switched back on in the cinema and that the movie even kept playing. The family was lucky to escape as other mall-goers notified them of the fire.
“We went to the mall, but it did not go well. We were forced to leave because of the fire. The third floor, where the cinema is, is completely dark, full of smoke, people are panicking, children are crying,” Anna can be heard saying, in the video she filmed when exiting the mall. As she walks out of the building, the ground floor can be seen filling up with smoke.
When Anna and her son were safe outside of the mall, her husband tried to get back in to retrieve the clothes they left behind. The man witnessed chaotic scenes on the third floor, with children still trapped in the cinema and their parents unable to reach them through thick, toxic smoke.
Other eyewitnesses have also reported that the fire alarm at the mall did not work. When the fire broke out, people panicked and ran towards the exits in a reportedly disorderly rush.
“We’ve decided to go and watch a cartoon in this mall for the first time. God … Thank you for saving us,” a woman, identified only as Alexandra, says in the caption to the video. “I saw a woman running and screaming about the fire … panic erupted, we were almost knocked down … No there were no alarms!”