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‘Our children were burning, and we just watched’ A fire at a shopping center in Russia kills at least 64 people. Meduza reports from Kemerovo.

Meduza
Relatives of people caught inside Kemerovo’s “Winter Cherry” shopping center during the fire on Sunday, March 25, 2018. Photo taken at the gymnasium of a local school.
Relatives of people caught inside Kemerovo’s “Winter Cherry” shopping center during the fire on Sunday, March 25, 2018. Photo taken at the gymnasium of a local school.
Danil Aikin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On Sunday, March 25, the “Winter Cherry” shopping center in Kemerovo caught fire. The blaze started on the fourth floor, near the movie theater, where many children had come to see “Sherlock Gnomes.” At 11:30 a.m. on Monday, federal emergency workers put the death toll at 64 people, saying another six were still trapped under the building’s rubble, which in some places had started to reignite. Meduza correspondent Irina Kravtsova went to Kemerovo, as the fire continued to put lives in danger.

The “Winter Cherry” started burning at about 4 p.m., local time in Kemerovo, and by 5 p.m. relatives of the people caught inside the shopping center first started gathering at the gymnasium of the nearest school. By 6 p.m., the gym was full of people awaiting any information from emergency workers. Upstairs, school officials propped up mattresses on chairs, so family members could lie down and try to rest. By seven in the morning on Monday, when Meduza’s correspondent arrived at the school, there were maybe 50 people still there, still waiting for information about their loved ones.

Beneath the basketball hoop in the gym, atop several school desks, there was a 12-liter yellow bucket of tea, a can of instant coffee, cheese sandwiches, and plastic cups full of water and the herbal sedative valerian root. People were sitting on benches at the center of the gym, some in twos, some in threes, and some people sat alone. Among the crowd were Alexander and Olga Lillevyali, covering themselves with a checkered white and blue blanket. Three of their daughters had just burned alive. Two of them were eleven years old. The youngest was five.

Alexander says he took his daughters to the mall on Sunday to see “Sherlock Gnomes.” The movie theater was on the fourth floor. He bought each girl a ticket and a box of popcorn, showed them to their seats, and then walked down to the first floor to wait. The show started at 2:40 p.m., but about 30 minutes later one of his daughters called him and said the theater was filling up with smoke, and they couldn’t get out because the doors locked. Lillevyali started running back upstairs, seeing that the whole shopping center was now filling with smoke.

“As I was running up the stairs, somebody handed me a wet rag, and I used it to cover my nose. When I reached the fourth floor, I broke a window to send the draft upwards. Then I collapsed,” said Alexander. “I started crawling, but I realized at this point that I’d lost all strength. I’d inhaled so much carbon monoxide that I was about to faint. My daughter kept calling me and calling me. I just shouted into the phone that she needed to try to get out of the theater, but there was nothing I could do. In front of me, it was already flames.” As the man spoke, tears streamed down his face. He pressed his hands to his eyes, trying to stop himself.

Unable to reach his children, Alexander ran back down the stairs, trying to find any rescue workers to help. Outside the mall, he met the first team of emergency responders: firemen come to put out the blaze.

“I told them that there were children locked in a smoke-filled theater on the fourth floor. That they needed to be rescued, and they were still alive. They agreed, but they took three minutes — three fucking minutes! — to put on their masks! And only then did they come into the building,” Lillevyali says. “I showed them the stairwell that was the fastest way up to the movie theater, and they started to follow me, but then some guy told them that there was a fire at the mall’s central staircase, and those bastards followed him off. I told them: ‘Give me one of your masks! I’ll pull them out myself!’ But they told me: ‘Can’t do it. Everything has to be according to regulations.’ My girls were left to burn because of the goddamn regulations.”

A social worker in a red jacket walked into the gymnasium. In a loud voice, she asked everyone, “Whose child had a cross around his neck on a red cord?” A woman near the entrance who seemed to be sleeping on her husband’s knees suddenly sat up.

“Are you sure it was red? Maybe it was more orange?” she asked with tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry. But it was red — scarlet, in fact,” the social work answered.

“The worst is yet to come”

Olga Lillevyali came to the “Winter Cherry” as soon as her husband called and said their children were dead.

“While the fire burned, we stood outside for six hours, and nobody came out to talk to us even once!” the woman says. “At about 5:30 [p.m.], the police cordoned off the shopping center. The officers were pushy. We ran across the street, back and forth, while the ‘Cherry’ burned. They didn’t let us come near, and they didn’t explain anything. There were plumes of smoke above the building, our children were burning, and we just watched.”

People outside the burning “Winter Cherry” shopping center
People outside the burning “Winter Cherry” shopping center
Danil Aikin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Olga says she kept coming back to the school, where emergency workers set up a headquarters, to ask for any news. But there never was any. “They just shoved cookies and sandwiches in our mouths,” she says. “My husband and I tried to stop one of the police officers at the school, to ask him what to expect, but he waved us away rudely. They didn’t care. Finally, my husband and I couldn’t take it anymore, and we started yelling, ‘Seredyuk, get out here!’ We’d heard on the news that he was somewhere there at the school. Think about it: we learned this from the news! He didn’t even have the guts to come out and face us. By about 9:30 [p.m.], my husband grabbed a police officer by the shirt and started to scream, “Show yourself! Will you tell us how many children died? What should we expect? Where can we get information?” Olga says she knows the mayor, and she knows that Seredyuk has three children, which is why she was particularly shocked by his unresponsiveness.

The first announcement to the gathered relatives came at about 10 in the evening. According to eyewitnesses, deputy head of the local emergency workers Evgeny Dedyukhin appeared to be extremely confused when speaking, telling the crowd only that firefighters were on the scene, and there was nothing more known at the time. Closer to 11, Mayor Ilya Seredyuk and Lieutenant Governor Vladimir Chernov addressed the group at the school. People shouted at the mayor, demanding that officials report on the rescue effort every 20 minutes. Witnesses say they granted this request for a bit, before disappearing once again. It seemed like the local officials didn’t know what they were doing, people told Meduza. Witnesses say a group of tough-looking men surrounded and guarded Seredyuk and Chernov, each time they spoke. Olga Lillevyali says one of them “smiled” while filming her husband’s face, when he demanded that the officials give the families more information.

One of the men in the gym told Meduza that, when he heard about the fire, he joked to his wife that the government would pin the whole thing on some kid with a lighter. He says he was still surprised when Kemerovo’s lieutenant governor actually told the crowd that one of the children in the mall’s trampoline center might have set fire to the foam filler. (According to some reports, the fire started at the children’s play area.)

In the 30 minutes Meduza’s correspondent spoke to Olga Lillevyali, a social worker came up to her three times and asked her to repeat how many of her children died in the fire, and how old they were. Each time, Olga dutifully answered each question. Each time, she started to cry.

“The way everything is set up in this government, you’ll still have to give this evidence several more times,” the social worker said. “Don’t cry. You’re going to need those tears. The worst is yet to come.”

Afterwards, Lillevyali and her husband were summoned by investigators.

“My son is still burning, and you’re shoving a sandwich down my throat”

The “Winter Cherry” wasn’t the most popular shopping center in Kemerovo, but locals say it still had a good bowling alley, swimming pool, skating rink, movie theater, and cafe. That’s why teachers often brought school children to this mall. Alena Zipunova says her daughter, a fifth grader named Vika, went to the “Winter Cherry” with her class on Sunday to enjoy the start of their spring break. First they bowled a few rounds, then they went skating, and then they went to the movies to see the same animated feature as the Lillevyalis, albeit on a different screen. Fifteen minutes after the movie started, the fire broke out. Nobody could get out of the theater. The entire class, along with their teacher, burned to death.

“Some of their classmates didn’t want to go, but ours went,” says Vika Zipunova’s grandmother, sitting beside Alena in the gym. “So God kept some of them from death, but not our children.”

Alena Zipunova verifies what other victims’ relatives told Meduza: She spent the whole night at the school gymnasium, but she never got any information from the authorities. She says the social worker asked her how many of her children died in the fire and how old they were “about eight times.” “I wanted to run outside to get away from her, if only to be alone to cry, but she found me there, too,” Alena says.

Not far from Zipunova, a man addresses a group of women who have assembled around him: “I heard that a woman with two children burned to death in an elevator. She screamed and called for help, but the rescuers couldn’t even get near.” “They’re probably mine,” a young woman says hopelessly, and begins to cry.

The women in the gym mostly sit staring at the floor or the wall. When one of them suddenly starts sobbing, it spreads and soon others are weeping with her. Now and again, emergency workers and paramedics walk up and encourage people to get a breath of fresh air or eat something.

“My son is burning out there, and you’re shoving a sandwich down my throat. Have you lost your mind?” a woman in a blue dress says, pushing away an emergency worker’s hand. “He’s probably already turned to ash, my God!”

Someone’s phone rings. It’s the mother whose son was wearing the cross on an orange cord. She answers and listens silently for about two minutes. When the call ends, she lowers her phone and starts crying. She’s just learned that her son was found dead under the rubble. A woman working for the emergency responders runs up to her with a glass of valerian root and a syringe. “It’s not supposed to be like this,” she says in a barely audible voice, and continues weeping.

A memorial to the victims of the Kemerovo shopping center fire, March 26, 2018
A memorial to the victims of the Kemerovo shopping center fire, March 26, 2018
Danil Aikin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

“I have to do this”

At 6 a.m. on Monday, March 26, there’s a line outside the Kemerovo regional blood bank. It’s mostly young people. At one point, an employee comes outside and tells the crowd that there’s no further need for blood donations. She says they can take another few people, but nobody under 130 pounds. The people in line start pleading with her to take their blood anyway. “First you said you only have to be 110 pounds!” a woman in line yells.

Eighteen-year-old Yulia Kononova told Meduza that she came to give blood to support the families who suffered in the fire. “I was going to come to the mall myself yesterday to meet with friends. My sister was going to come, too, but at the last minute we decided to stay home,” the young woman says. Standing not far from her is a man named Mikhail, whose five-year-old brother burned to death on Sunday. “I have to do this,” he says, when asked why he wants to give blood. In the end, however, he's turned away and told to come back on Friday for the next available appointment.

According to Ilgiz Vafin, the head doctor at the Kemerovo Blood Bank, no one informed the city’s residents that the victims in Sunday’s tragedy needed blood, but people started calling in and showing up 90 minutes after the fire started. By 10 a.m. on Monday, just two hours after the facility opened, 70 people had already donated blood. A half an hour later, an employee addressed the donors in line with another announcement: there was no longer a need for any new blood.

Report by Irina Kravtsova in Kemerovo, translation by Kevin Rothrock