At least 64 people, including nine children, have been confirmed dead in fire at a shopping centre in the city of Kemerovo in Siberia, according to Russian emergency services cited by local media.
The death toll was expected to rise as the rescue operation continued on Monday at the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) shopping centre, just hours after the fire engulfed the four-storey building, Russia’s Tass news agency reported.
“Two out of three cinema halls caved in from the fourth to the third floor of the building,” Vladlen Aksyonov, Russian deputy emergencies minister, told Tass.
A representative of the emergency operation headquarters told Tass that 10 out of 44 injured people were being treated in a hospital. Others received medical attention at the scene.
At least 16 people were still missing. “They could be located in the cinema halls that caved in,” emergency service personnel told Tass.
The fire was brought under control, and a criminal investigation into the cause of the incident is under way, Tass reported.
‘No fire alarm’
The Ekho Mosvky radio station on Monday quoted witnesses who said the fire alarm did not go off and that the shopping centre’s staff did not organise the evacuation.
Anna Zarechneva who was on the top floor where the fire started, watching a film with her husband and son, said they only found out about the fire when a man ran into the theatre shouting.
“We didn’t hear the fire alarm, they even didn’t turn on the light during the show,” she said. “That movie could have been the last for us, I’ve only just realised that.”
Alexander Lillevyali lost three daughters, 11-year-old twins and a five-year-old, who were in a cinema hall on the top floor watching a cartoon.
Lillevyali told the Meduza news website that one of his daughters called him, saying that they could smell the smoke but could not get out because the door was locked.
“I was shouting into the phone, telling her to get out but there was nothing I could do – the fire was in front of me,” he said.
The prosecutor general’s office on Monday ordered all shopping centres in Russia to be checked for fire safety features.
Kommersant, a Russian publication, reported that, according to the preliminary probe, a child could have started the fire, as an area on the top floor near a playroom and a cinema was identified as the epicentre of the blaze.
The fire quickly spread to the building’s plastic cladding and several hours later the roof collapsed, Kommersant reported.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow, said the incident was seen as a national disaster.
“The Kremlin has been kept up to speed with how things have been developing,” he said. “Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov says that President [Vladimir] Putin has dispatched Vladimir Puchkov, the head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, to the site of the tragedy.
“Various units of the ministry, like robotics, drones and other equipment, were being mobilised from Moscow and also from the city of Krasnoyarsk,” he said.
According to Tass, the shopping mall, with an overall area of 23,000sq metres, opened in 2013.
It has a car park for 250 cars, shops, a bowling alley, a children’s centre, a cinema, food courts and a petting zoo, the agency said.