The radios went silent How a deadly warehouse fire tore apart the Moscow firefighting community
In September 2016, eight firefighters were killed while putting out a fire in a warehouse in East Moscow. The leaders of the effort to extinguish the fire, Dmitry Shirlin and Sergey Barsukov, now find themselves on trial. But in a dangerous business like theirs, should fire chiefs be held responsible for the deaths of subordinates? Meduza correspondents Kristina Safonova and Maxim Solopov report on the deadliest fire for Moscow firefighters in the last 70 years.
On the evening of September 22, 2016, Colonel Dmitri Shirlin received a call from dispatch operator Elena Moiseyeva, who said a warehouse on Amurskaya Street had been burning for around an hour, and the firefighters still hadn’t located the fire’s origin. Shirlin put down his work and headed to Amurskaya.
The fire was “usual, routine,” according to Andrey, one of the firefighters on the scene (he requested that his last name not be used). Nobody thought that, in a warehouse full of plastic flowers, eight firefighters would die in a matter of seconds — not even the people who were supposed to be thinking about it.
“He was eager to fight. Sasha was one brave guy.”
In 1993, a plot of more than 20 hectares (about 50 acres) was leased to the Victoria Joint Stock Company. In 2006, the site became a city distribution center, and new tenants started leasing the warehouses, filling them with things like sporting goods, fabrics, alcoholic beverages, and construction materials.
On the evening of September 22, 2016, Irina Kolesnichenko, an employee of one of the tenant companies, was in the warehouse alone, filling out a delivery form. At around 5:00 pm, she went into the hallway and saw sparks coming from the ceiling. She quickly left the building and notified Victoria employees, who called the fire department. Thick, black smoke was soon pluming from the warehouse.
When Shirlin arrived at Amurskaya at 7:30, the fire had already covered 500 square meters (5,400 square feet) of warehouse. As a senior officer, Shirlin assumed control of the effort. The fire was divided into four sections, one of which was the roof. It’s unknown exactly how many people were sent there initially — some of the survivors remember 20 people, others remember 40.
Around 8:00 pm, Alexander Yurchikov, a 44-year-old firefighter, was caught in an “ammonia cloud” on the roof. Shirlin saw the firefighters help Yurchikov down the ladder and bring him to an ambulance. Doctors examined him, gave him some oxygen, and discharged him.
“When I got to the ambulance, [Yurchikov] was already putting his uniform back on,” Shirlin said in court. Shirlin tried to send him home, but Yurchikov insisted on returning to the fire. “He was eager to fight. Sasha was one brave guy.”
Less than 30 minutes later, Yurchikov and seven of his comrades were burned alive.
“I turned around, took a few steps, fell, and looked up — the roof was already gone.”
Yuri, one of the firefighters who survived, heard things falling down inside, “crashes,” before he even entered the building. “We could already tell it was time to get away from there,” he said, “but around here we follow orders first and talk about them second.”
“Around 8:30 pm, something big fell from the ceiling — big enough to cause a heat plume,” two firefighters from Detachment 69 told investigators. Soon after that, Mikhail Kutuzov, the site manager, prohibited them from going back in.
Shirlin arrived at the site soon after. He didn’t cancel Kutuzov’s orders for those firefighters to leave the site, but he didn’t cancel his earlier orders to increase the number of people on the roof, either.
Andrey didn’t hear Kutuzov’s order to leave. It was noisy, he explained; the firefighters were using gas cutters to make holes in the roof to lower barrels of water. Holes began to appear in the roof as the fire spread. The more equipment arrived in Amurskaya, the more the water pressure weakened, so they decided to use foam, instead.
Despite other firefighters gradually retreating, Andrei himself didn’t sense any danger. “That wasn’t the first time I’d had a burning roof under me,” he said. Other firefighters later told investigators that they didn’t feel safe on the roof, but that they deferred to the leadership: "Our bosses are experienced people, they know better than us.”
Around the same time, firefighters from other sites reported a significant temperature increase and partial collapses inside the warehouse. “Whatever was falling was hidden by the heavy smoke. But it was clear from the sound and the heat that the building was collapsing,” Alexander Kozirev said.
“The situation changed at the last minute, after it was already too late,” said Andrey. “I turned around, took a few steps, fell, and looked — the roof was already gone.” He and Lev Mironov, another firefighter, were able to hold onto the edge of the roof. Sergey Sinelobov, Nikolai Golubev, and six other firefighters weren’t, and fell into the fire.
Andrey said the remaining firefighters threw a firehose into the flames, but it immediately burned up; only fragments survived.
A later investigation found that the roof collapsed at 8:50 pm. After the collapse, everyone gathered for roll call. Yuri recalls another firefighter saying that his boss, Major Akimov, was among the ones missing. “I went up to Kutuzov and asked him whether it was true that Akimov had fallen. He told me he didn’t know anything. But it was clear from his eyes that he already knew everything.”
Andrey and Yuri spent the whole night on Amurskaya Street. They didn’t manage to put out the warehouse fire until the morning. “Our department didn’t do anything else. It’s almost like they wouldn’t let us get to the fire. Nobody said anything, nobody came up to us, nobody gave any instructions,” said Yuri.
Around eight in the morning, the bodies of Alexander Yurchikov, Alexey Akimov, Roman Georgiev, Alexander Korentsov, Pavel Andryushkin, Nikolai Golubev, Sergey Sinelobov, and Pavel Makarochkin were pulled out of the rubble.
“There was a family, and now it’s gone. And that life is gone, too.”
It was around 9:00 pm when Nikolai’s sister called Tatyana, his wife, and told her about the fire on Amurskaya. Tatyana started to worry when she couldn’t reach Nikolai by phone — usually, he answered right away. She spent several hours calling the fire station and the other firefighters, but nobody could tell her anything. Around 1:30 am, she decided to go to Amurskaya herself.
“I thought I would arrive and find him there, I thought maybe something had happened with his phone. I wanted to calm down. The guys told me later that when I called, they already knew Kolya had died,” Tatyana says.
When she asked where Kolya was, one of the other firefighters started apologizing and took her to headquarters. There were already psychologists working there, and they told Tatyana that Nikolai was gone. She stayed at the fire until morning, unable to believe it. “I can’t remember the two months after that,” Tatyana says. “They moved me from couch to couch, I lay there, bawled, I couldn’t get over it.”
It’s difficult for Tatyana to talk to her children about what happened. “The youngest took it really hard. Sometimes I sit with the older one and he gets emotional and starts talking about it. He has the same gestures, facial expressions, speech, mannerisms as his dad. I start crying and I can’t stop,” Tatyana says.
“Kolya was my entire life. I would tell him, ‘God forbid, if something happens to you, I won’t survive without you.’ Our love was so strong. We wanted to buy a house on the river, we dreamed of something,” she continued. “It’s beyond words. There was a family, and now it’s gone. And that life is gone, too, and it’s never coming back.”
Even after hearing news reports about the fire, Larisa Liseyenko didn’t worry for her husband, Roman Georgiev, because he “didn’t recklessly climb anywhere just to be a hero.” She had been with Roman for eight years, and she was seven months pregnant with their first child.
Early in the morning on September 23, 2016, Larisa’s mother-in-law called and said she was coming over. Larisa realized that something bad must have happened, but the worst she could imagine was that Roman was in the hospital. When she opened the door, she saw a lot of people in uniform.
“I wasn’t hysterical, I didn’t faint. I just sat in the chair. I remember thinking I was saying, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’ And then I realized that nobody was answering, and that it had been in my head,” Larisa says.
She spent the next month and a half in the prenatal care unit at the hospital. At the doctors’ insistence, she didn’t go to her husband’s funeral.
According to Larisa, things got a little easier when her daughter, Liza, was born. “She’s an exact copy of Roma. It was very painful, but now I’m actually glad she has his facial expressions, some of his habits.”
Larisa has explained to her daughter what happened to her dad. “I told her that Dad was a firefighter. She knows there was a tragedy, and now Dad’s in the sky.”
On the night of September 23, Svetlana Korentsova was told several times that her son was no longer alive — by her husband, by her daughter in law, and by a psychologist. But Svetlana couldn’t truly believe it. “I’m still waiting for him, even now,” she says.
Her husband, Vladislav, quit his job after learning about their son’s death. “Work and everything else lost its meaning. Food lost its taste. Life lost its interest,” said Svetlana.
During the memorial service on Prechistenka Street, many firefighters and officers approached Svetlana, including Vladimir Puchkov, the head of the Moscow Emergency Situations Ministry.
“I remember how I pulled on him, how I wanted to spit on him, because he had given some kind of speech and it was just nonsense. But Alexander’s parents were nearby, and something stopped me,” she says.
“They took my son, grandchildren, and daughter-in-law. I don’t have anything.”
Details about the warehouse and the Victoria company’s owner, Ingush entrepreneur and partner of the Gutseriyev family Israil Oskanov, soon began appearing in the news. It became clear that the authorities had been interested in his warehouse complex even before the fires. The last inspection before the fire, in March 2016, had revealed 25 fire safety violations, including the lack of an automatic fire suppression system. The company was supposed to fix the violations by November 1, 2016.
For two years, no suspects appeared in the fire case. Then, in May 2018, Vladimir Puchkov, an ardent defender of the fire department’s leadership, left his position as the head of the Ministry. Two months later, Ivan Chibisov replaced Investigator Kostina in the investigating committee.
“[Chibisov] summoned them again, questioned them again,” Larisa Liseyenko, Roman Georgiev’s widow, told Meduza. In December 2018, Chibisov indicted Dmitry Shirlin and Sergey Barsukov under the article concerning negligence.
Liseyenko accused the Ministry Leadership of leaving the victims’ families “in the dark.” “I’m not even talking about an apology. Just explain what happened. Everyone was in shock — how could such a thing happen? Eight people!” said Larisa. “If they had explained, perhaps nobody would have dug in and found out about it. Not because nobody would care, but because we would have answers.”
“When the roof collapsed, everyone’s radios went silent. It was totally clear what was happening,” says Alexey Akimov’s widow, Oxana, who had worked as a dispatcher for the Moscow Emergency Situations Ministry since 2015.
“The last time I saw [Alexey] was on September 20. He came home from work, ate dinner, took a shower, and went to sleep. He fell asleep so quickly. I remember, because his back was left uncovered, and he was hunched over. I covered him with a blanket. In the morning, he left and didn’t come back.”
After learning about the roof’s collapse, Oxana couldn’t figure out what was going on with her husband for several hours. The psychologist came to talk to her around 11:00 p.m. “She said, ‘don’t worry, they just can’t find him, but nobody’s saying he died,’” Oxana says. “I didn’t say anything. What could I say? It’s not hard to understand that if someone felt through a burned roof, and after four hours a psychologist comes to talk to you, there’s probably more to it.’”
They took Oxana to her mother-in-law. “I went to Mom, and she was mopping — you know, like all moms, when she’s worried about something, she starts doing something. She saw there was a psychologist with me, she said, ‘Do you want some tea?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s for you, grandma.’ She understood, but didn’t say anything, went to the kitchen, put on the kettle, and cried,” Oxana recalls.
Returning to work was difficult. “At first, it was the sound of sirens that especially killed me,” Oxana says. She constantly asked her colleagues about what happened on Amurskaya. “They literally told me, ‘Oxana, it was a shitshow. It was totally unclear who was doing what, or where they were going.’”
Oxana quit her job at the Ministry in February 2019, soon after Shirlin and Barsukov were indicted for negligence. According to Oxana, they collected 5,000 rubles (about $65) from each of the firefighters to pay for their lawyers. Only two out of 11 chiefs in the region refused to contribute, she said. “One of them said, ‘Are you crazy? His wife works here, how would I be able to look her in the eye?’ And the other said, ‘Are you crazy? I’m the one who pulled out Alexey’s body.’”
The others asked her to be understanding, as they still had to work with the defendants. “I said, ‘Guys, don’t worry about it,’” says Oxana. “But then don’t go telling me how sorry you are, and don’t talk about your brotherhood of firefighters.’”
Pavel Andryushkin’s mother Marina found out about her son’s death on September 23. “In the morning, I heard that some firefighters had gone missing. But my son served in the northeastern district, and we’re in the eastern one. I didn’t think it was a big deal, and I went to work. Then his girlfriend called,” she remembers.
Pavel was buried at the Volkovskoe Cemetery in the Moscow suburbs, where he had grown up. Marina visits her son’s grave several times a month. “I constantly talk with him in my head, and he talks with me,” Marina says.
Pavel had been a firefighter since he was 18, and Marina always worried about him. She suggested he switch to a job that didn’t require him to go out to fires, but he refused. “Now I’m left without a future. They took my son, my grandchildren, and my daughter-in-law. I don’t have anything,” says Marina.
The other victims’ relatives have mixed opinions. Some believe the officers should be prosecuted to the fullest possible extent — the article on negligence provides for up to seven years in prison. Others say the trial is dragging on so long that a simple guilty verdict would be enough.
“[The Emergency Situations Ministry] will fight for those still living,” says Larisa Liseyenko. “If the court finds that they’re guilty, the fact that they were appointed will show the incompetence of the management. Logically, that would attest to the problems with the system. That’s why they’ll protect them.”
“To prevent the documents from being widely publicized”
General Ilya Denisov, the head of the Moscow firefighters, chose nine officers to serve on the commission to investigate the deaths, including Mikhail Kutuzov, who was in charge of one of the extinguishing sites, and Colonel Sergei Kavunov, who arrived at the fire an hour after the collapse to organize a search for the missing firefighters.
On September 28, both Kutuzov and Kavunov were removed from the commission, allegedly for logistical reasons.
Kutuzov wasn’t asked about the removal in court; the participants were more interested in various inconsistencies in his testimony. The replacement of Kavunov on the commission, however, was actively discussed in court. “He tried to pressure the people who wrote the explanations to present, let’s say, his own vision,” Denisov said in a hearing. Former deputy and commission chairman Sergey Lysikov has also corroborated this information.
In their testimonies, Denisov and Lysikov mentioned that Kavunov’s behavior may have been a product of his poor relationship with Shirlin. According to Lysikov, Kavunov “considered himself somehow undervalued, and might have even planned on taking one of the positions, maybe even the one Shirlin took.” Ilya Denisov also cautiously noted that his relationship with Shirlin was not always a “strictly working” one. “We’ve been known to play sports together,” he says.
Denisov and Shirlin served together in the southwestern regional center of the St. Petersburg Emergency Situations Ministry until 2015. Denisov ended up there after a long career in Moscow (he started out in St. Petersburg, and Shirlin started out in Karelia). After returning to the capital to become the chief of the central board, Denisov offered Shirlin the position as head of the city’s firefighting services.
Soon after, Kavunov approached Shirlin in their office. “Why did you come here? You’re not a Muscovite,” he said. “I was preparing the department for myself, and then you came along.’”
“I was against appointing people who don’t have enough experience working in Moscow to that position, because Moscow’s a difficult region, it requires experience,” Kavunov confirmed to Meduza, after calling the other officers’ testimonies “slander.”
Kavunov also expressed doubt about Shirlin and Barsukov’s story of the roof collapsing because of an explosion. After the fire, he said, he helped clean up debris for two days. “There was already a story about exploding cylinders, popping sounds, and so on. They were looking for cylinder fragments,” he recalls. “We didn’t find anything specific: no fragments, no cylinders.
Experts from two state organizations concluded that the fire was extinguished properly, but found evidence of multiple safety violations in the building. One analysis recommended providing descriptions of the fire on Amurskaya Street to all Moscow firefighters as study materials. The official documents describing the fire, however, were classified by Denisov. According to Andrey Lisin, head of the Department for the Protection of State Secrets, this was “to prevent the documents from being widely publicized.”
Ilya Denisov did not remove Dmitry Shirlin from the leadership of the Fire and Rescue Department, even after he was indicted for negligence. Instead, the investigation had to use legal means to remove him. It was only after an appeal to the Moscow City Court that Denisov transferred Shirlin to a new job, unrelated to extinguishing fires. Barsukov was also transferred to a similar position.
Since June, the case has been effectively put on hold; at the request of Shirlin and Barsukov’s defense team, the court appointed an additional explosives expert to conduct an examination. According to lawyer Oxana Oparenko, the results will be ready by February 2021 at the earliest. The statute of limitations for the crime Shirlin and Barsukov are accused of expires in September 2021.
“Nobody reached any conclusions, nobody figured it out.”
Since the fire in 2016, there have been three more fires at the warehouses on Amurskaya Street. A year ago, the territory was transferred to the city, and the buildings were emptied. Residential buildings are set to replace them in 2022.
Colonel Kavunov retired in 2017. “No pressure was put on me, I simply left,” says Kavunov. “The problem is that nobody reached any conclusions, nobody figured out what happened in the fire. The commission’s main goal was to give specific recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the events: personnel changes, regulation improvements, and so on. None of this happened.”
In November 2019, a proposed amendment to the Russian law titled “On Emergency Services” was published. In it, the Moscow Emergency Situations Ministry proposed adding a regulation that would ban the prosecution of service leadership in the case that workers or “saved citizens” were injured, “under conditions of justified risk or extreme necessity.”
An explanatory note specified that the amendments were developed on behalf of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev after a meeting with officials in April 2016. Officially, the topic of the meeting was the danger of work in coal mines, but the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta directly connected the legislation to the case against Shirlin and Barsukov.
According to the Deputy Minister, absolute compliance with instructions may prevent fire-fighting managers from doing their job. “Denisov admitted that if a fire chief follows orders, he will be protected from criminal prosecution,” the news agency TASS reported. “But in reality, the situation at a fire can change dramatically, and sometimes you have to stray from protocol.”
“A fire is a battle, and sometimes people get killed. Any of us could be in Shirlin and Barsukov’s place,” a representative of the Moscow Emergency Situations Ministry told Meduza.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale