(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin told relatives of the scores killed in a shopping-mall fire in Siberia that those guilty for one of the deadliest blazes in recent Russian history would be brought to justice, seeking to defuse a rising wave of public anger over the loss of life.
The Russian president flew to the city of Kemerovo early Tuesday morning, and met with families of some of the victims, survivors and local officials. He stayed away from thousands of angry and distraught local residents who gathered in the city’s main square, chanting “shame” and alleging that the authorities were covering up the true death toll. Those protesters were met by phalanxes of police in riot gear and lower-level local officials.
The fire broke out Sunday afternoon and burned into Monday as firefighters were unable to rescue dozens trapped inside. The official death toll stands at 64, including 41 children, many of whom were trapped in a movie theater where the exit doors were locked. Coming just a week after Putin won a landslide re-election, the tragedy shocked Russians and revived longstanding questions about poor enforcement of fire-safety rules.
“You understand that many people don’t believe the authorities now,” one man from the group of survivors selected to meet the president told Putin. Others demanded the removal of the long-serving local governor, Aman Tuleyev.
“Such decisions aren’t made in front of the cameras,” Putin answered, pledging to take necessary measures after a full investigation. “What’s happening here? It’s not military action, not an unexpected methane leak in a mine. People came to relax, children. We talk about demography and we lose people like this? Why? Because of criminal negligence and sloppiness,” he said.
In a meeting with local officials, Putin sternly questioned a top fire official, who said many of the businesses in the mall were set up as small businesses and thus exempt from inspections under measures aimed at reducing the regulatory burden on entrepreneurs.
“When you hear the number of dead, you don’t want to cry, you want to wail, but when you hear things like this, different feelings arise,” Putin, appearing angry, said.
Tuleyev, the local governor, apologized to Putin for the fire having taken place in his region. He denounced the protesters in the main square as “opposition forces” trying to stir up trouble.
Built in a converted factory, the Winter Cherry mall was one of the city’s largest. Investigators said fire alarms were turned off after the blaze broke out and some exit doors were locked. Many of the trapped children called and messaged their parents from inside the movie theater, where a cartoon was showing, before they died.
Putin said the owners of the mall would be identified, but the operators also would face investigation. Billionaire Denis Shtengelov told the Vedomosti daily that he owns “just under half” the mall’s space but didn’t manage it. He vowed to assist investigators and said the mall had passed fire inspections.
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