At least 64 people have died in a massive shopping-mall fire in Siberia, “many of them children,” according to multiple news agencies. Russian officials have already acknowledged an investigation into “serious violations,” including blocked fire exits and alarms that either never worked or had been turned off. The death toll may go higher, but for the moment firefighters can’t access certain parts of the Winter Cherry mall:
At least 64 people have died in a massive fire at a shopping center in central Russia, while others remain unaccounted for, a Russian official confirmed Monday.
NPR’s Lucian Kim, reporting from Moscow, says many children are thought to be among the dead.
The fire — among the deadliest in years in Russia — has been extinguished, emergency officials said, but rescuers were having difficulty in reaching the upper floors of the building due to a roof collapse.
CNN has put together scenes from local television of the fire itself, which began yesterday:
— CNN (@CNN) March 26, 2018
Preliminary investigations point to the fire having broken out in the cinema hall area of the four-story Winter Cherry shopping mall in the center of Kemerovo. …
Earlier Svetlana Petrenko, a Russian Investigative Commitee spokeswoman, told Tass that four people had been detained and questioned in relation to the fire. Among those detained include “the tenant of the premises where the epicenter of the fire allegedly was,” Petrenko said.
Sputnik, a state-funded news outlet, reported the head of the city’s fire department Sergei Yakovlev as saying the blaze had spread via flammable thermal insulation, making it difficult to put out.
The BBC reports that investigators believe a technician switched off the fire alarm after finding out about the fire, but that’s hardly the only issue arising in the aftermath of the fire. A local politician wrote on Facebook that the fire exits were blocked and that fire extinguishers didn’t work when needed:
In a Facebook post (in Russian), Kemerovo politician Anton Gorelkin said that “fire exits were shut, turning the complex into a trap” and “there was no organised evacuation”.
He also said a fire extinguisher that could have doused the flames at the start did not work.
The region’s deputy governor, Vladimir Chernov, said “this is the question: why were the doors shut?”
Witness after witness told reporters similar stories about the lack of alarms, and also the lack of cooperation from mall staff. Some claim that staffers prevented some children from leaving the play areas even after the fire broke out. That, perhaps, might be explained by the lack of alarms and the need to keep track of unaccompanied children in the mall, but investigators will need to delve deeply into those reports to see whether that caused more deaths than necessary.
What started the fire? Chernov blamed it on children smoking in a trampoline room and setting fire to foam rubber. Russian broadcasters have other theories:
Rossiya 24 TV, a national broadcaster, said an electrical fault was the most likely cause – as in most previous deadly fires in Russia.
Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Anna Kuznetsova, has blamed negligence, and called for urgent safety checks at similar entertainment complexes.
That will certainly be one focus of investigation, but hardly the only one. Attention will certainly fall on the fire exits and the alarm system for those failures, which will be the responsibility of the mall operators. But will investigators turn their attention to the city officials responsible for making sure all of those safety systems remained in good working order? In the US and other countries, local fire marshals require regular inspections and testing of all fire-safety systems and can impose large fines and other penalties for failure to comply — including padlocking facilities and preventing all use until violations are rectified.
That’s not a guarantee against all disasters. The Oakland “Ghost Ship” fire in December 2016, resulting in dozens of deaths, was a reminder of that. The warehouse had been illegally converted to residential use, and fire marshals were slow to follow up on violations that upped the risk of a massive fire. However, the Ghost Ship was an old warehouse that flew under the radar as an entertainment venue; Winter Cherry is a massive retail operation from which the city presumably draws considerable revenue.
Do Russian fire safety regulators have similar authority? If they do, then how did this situation at the mall exist in the first place? Were officials paid to look the other way? If local officials do not have that kind of authority, then perhaps this demonstrates the need to reform their safety regulations to include it.