Twelve-year-old Vika Pochankina was on a class outing in the Siberian city of Kemerovo when fire broke out next to the theater where she and a dozen of her classmates were watching a movie.
There were no fire alarms to alert the students, who were celebrating the start of spring break.
Dense, black smoke began filling the theater, and the children tried to escape but found the doors locked. They were trapped. Vika, in a panic, called her aunt, Evgeniya, and told her she couldn’t breathe.
“She said that everything burns, and the doors are locked in the cinema,” a sobbing Evgeniya told a reporter from Komsomolskaya Pravda in a recording posted on the newspaper’s website. The paper did not use Evgeniya’s last name.
“I told her, ‘Vika, take everything off, put your nose through your clothes,’” Evgeniya said in the recording. Vika, realizing that the fire was consuming the theater, cried to her aunt, “Tell my mother that I loved her. Tell everyone that I loved them,” Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted Evgeniya as saying.
Vika and her aunt were then disconnected.
Vika, from the nearby village of Treshchovsky, was believed to be one of at least 64 people killed Sunday afternoon in the fire at the Winter Cherry shopping mall. Russian investigators are blaming the blaze, which consumed more than 5,300 square feet of the busy mall in Siberia, on a lack of fire and safety measures. Seven of Vika’s fifth-grade classmates are also presumed dead.
Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry said hundreds were evacuated from the mall before the fourth floor collapsed. Dozens were injured or still missing as of Monday morning and the death toll was expected to rise.
Videos posted on social media showed people trying to escape by jumping out of the windows onto the sidewalks below.
On Monday, the roof of the mall collapsed as efforts to extinguish the fire continued. The raging flames kept firefighters from entering the building for 12 hours to search for the missing. The mall was built in an old Soviet cake factory and had few windows and exits.
Government reaction to the incident immediately drew criticism. Many Russians were shocked by state television’s lack of coverage of the tragedy on Sunday’s nightly news shows.
Despite the fire being one of Russia’s deadliest in the last century, most state media did not report the incident until after the 9 p.m. news shows, five hours after the fire started.
Only one state channel, Russia 24, covered the story immediately as it unfolded.
Kemerovo, which is about 1,800 miles east of Moscow, is in a large coal mining region in Siberia’s southwest. By Monday, all the channels were carrying live coverage of the tragedy.
Across the country, people placed flowers and candles in central squares in memory of those killed in the Siberian city. Some changed their social media profiles to a black square with the words Kemerovo written in white letters in the middle in honor of the victims.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was reelected to a fourth term last week, expressed his condolences to the victims’ families, his press secretary said Monday morning. Putin ordered the head of the Emergency Situations Ministry to go to Kemerovo.
Russia’s federal Investigative Committee, which focuses on major crime, said it was looking into several apparent fire and safety violations at the mall. The committee said it wanted to speak to the mall’s owner as well as to a security guard who turned off the complex’s fire alarm system after the blaze started.
“Serious violations took place when the mall was being built and when it was functioning. The fire exits were blocked,” Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for the committee, said in a statement.
On Monday, the committee said four people had been detained in connection with the investigation.
The Emergency Situations Ministry’s chief fire inspector told the state news agency Tass that a scheduled inspection in 2016 never took place because of supervisory holidays.
Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Anna Kuznetsova, said the fire had been caused by incompetence and warned there were many similar shopping centers.
“The bosses of other malls in other regions must right now ask themselves: Have we done everything we can to ensure something like this doesn’t happen here?” Kuznetsova said in a statement.
One of the owners of the mall, Denis Shtengelov, told RIA Novosti, another state news agency, that his company would pay the equivalent of $52,000 to the families of each person killed in the fire. “The company is ready to undertake a comprehensive rehabilitation of the victims in this tragedy," RIA quoted Shtengelov as saying in an interview from Australia.
In addition, Kemerovo Gov. Aman Tuleyev said the regional government would give the victims’ families the equivalent of $17,500 each.
Anton Gorelkin, a deputy from Kemerovo in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, posted a passionate video on his Facebook page [link in Russian] questioning why the building’s fire exits were shut, “turning the complex into a trap" with no organized evacuation.
Gorelkin then pointed a finger at local administrators, who allowed the complex to dodge fire and safety regulations.
“The building’s acceptance certificate was signed by the commission,” he said in a separate Facebook post. “The main signature was put by the deputy mayor, he is also the head of the city improvement department. He could close his eyes to obvious security problems only in one case, I think: if his eyes were closed with money.”
Among Russia’s opposition, the message was clear: The fire was caused by corruption emanating from the top of the state, which allows bribes and law-breaking to the benefit of those in power.
“If the state's task was to prevent such tragedies, it would have to deal with the systemic problems — corruption and concentration of power,” wrote Oleg Kozlovsky, an opposition politician, on Facebook. “This cannot be done within a single ministry or one field. Therefore, alas, there is no doubt that nothing will be done. Some people will be imprisoned, will conduct checks in shopping centers and help us to forget as soon as possible. Until next time.”