An entire class of schoolchildren apparently died in the fire, some having had the chance to make desperate, futile phone calls to parents or relatives before succumbing to the smoke and flames.
Russian social networks were flooded with grief, and a measure of anger over the response. The disastrous blaze joins a long list of accidents, fires and sinkings in Russia marked by apparent negligence beforehand and inept or insufficient response by emergency services.
"We are burning, perhaps this is goodbye," a 13-year-old named Maria posted on her social media account, according to the Rossiya-24 televsion channel. Hers was one of about 30 goodbyes posted by children who would not log into their accounts again.
"There are no accurate lists," the television reporter said, "but the parents are holding on to the hope that the names of their children will be moved from the list of the dead to those missing."
The fire broke out on Sunday afternoon, the first day of a week-long school break. A class from a school in the small town of Treschevsky had come to Kemerovo to see a movie at the Winter Cherry mall, eat ice cream and jump on a trampoline. On Monday, parents of the students visited hospitals in hope of finding their children. The director of the school, Pavel Orynsky, broke down into tears while describing the students on camera.
A woman named Yevgenia told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that her niece Vika called her at 4:11, right after the fire broke out, from the movie theater where so many of the children from Treschevsky found themselves trapped.
"She told me that everything was on fire, that all the doors were blocked," Yevgenia said, struggling to overcome her tears. Vika told Yevgenia over the phone that she couldn't breathe. "I told her: Vika, take off all your clothes, take them to your nose and breathe through them."
"Please tell mom that I loved her," Vika replied, "please tell everyone that I loved them."
That was the last Yevgenia heard from her niece.
In other corners of the Russian media, anger toward the emergency services for their handling of the disaster found a platform. An interview with Alexander Lillevyali published by Meduza, an independent outlet, recounted a father's attempts to save his daughters from the burning theater while first responders geared up and struggled to commit to a single course of action.
"They took three minutes - three (expletive) minutes! -- to put on their masks," Lillevyali said, also with tears in his eyes. The fire fighters initially followed him to the staircase leading to the theater, but they were redirected by a man who told them of another fire. He then begged them to give him a mask so he could return to the theater and save the girls himself.
"They told me: Can't do it. Everything has to be according to regulations," Lillevyali recalled. "My girls were left to burn because of the goddamn regulations.
Within hours of opening an investigation into the cause of the fire, the Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said authorities were looking into several "serious violations" of fire safety codes. Petrenko said fire exits were blocked, and a private security guard turned off the fire alarm after receiving notice of the fire.
One of the hospitalized victims was an 11-year-old boy who jumped out of a fourth-floor window to escape the blaze. He was described by authorities Monday as being in serious condition and emotionally traumatized.
"He lost his parents and younger sister in this tragedy," Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said, adding that he suffered several broken bones and is on a respirator.
The Kommersant newspaper reported that 288 firefighters arrived with 62 firetrucks to battle the blaze, which took 19 hours to extinguish and covered an area of 1,500 square meters (16,000 square feet). The roof over the burned area collapsed, and at least 59 people - 41 of them children - were reported missing by the RBC news outlet.
About 12 of the missing children were in one of the mall's three movie theaters, which rescuers have so far been unable to access due to the high temperatures and the building's instability, according to Vladimir Chernov, Kemerovo's vice governor. The cinema is next to a children's play area on the fourth floor, which was believed to be where the fire started.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined by authorities, but the blaze underscored an appalling record of fire safety in Russia in recent years.
Four people were detained for questioning, including a tenant from the area in the shopping center where the fire is believed to have begun, as well as the head of the mall's management company.
Chernov said the fire safety situation at the Winter Cherry Mall resembles those of other shopping centers in the region, where authorities will now conduct safety checks.
The head of Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry, Vladimir Puchkov, said rescuers struggled to contain and extinguish the fire as parts of the building began to destabilize. He described thick clouds of smoke and limited visibility as temperatures within the mall reached 700 degrees Celsius (1,292 degrees Fahrenheit), the RBC news outlet reported.
Chernov said the working theory behind the fire's cause is that a child may have lit a foam ball in the play area with a cigarette lighter. Other theories put forward in the Russian press suggested that faulty electrical wiring may have ignited the blaze. There were reports that the building's fire alarms did not sound, leaving those in the movie theater initially unaware of the situation.
The fire raged for hours before firefighters could reach the fourth floor of the mall. In addition to theaters and a children's area, that floor featured a large petting zoo. All the animals are reported to have died.
The fire in Kemerovo was the latest in a string of major fire disasters in Russia in recent years. In 2003, a fire in student dorm at a Moscow university killed 44 and injured 156. In a 2007 nursing home fire in Krasnodar, 63 people died, and a 2009 nightclub fire in Perm killed 153. In 2015, a fire at a mall in Kazan took the lives of 19 people and injured 61.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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