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Putin Says Deadly Mall Fire In Central Russia Due To 'Criminal Negligence'

Updated at 6:15 a.m. ET

Thousands of people gathered in the Siberian city of Kemerovo on Tuesday to express anger over a fire that killed at least 64 people, many of them children, as reports indicated that the building's alarm system had been shut off and exits blocked.

Reuters, citing a list of victims made available to relatives, said 41 of the dead were children, many of whom were apparently trapped in a locked movie theater.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who made a surprise visit to the city, blamed the deaths from the fire at the Winter Cherry shopping center on Sunday on "criminal negligence, sloppiness."

"How could this possibly happen? What's the reason?" Putin said at a meeting with the task force dealing with the fire, according to comments distributed by his press office.

Putin's remarks came hours after Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday that it was too early to say whether local officials had failed in Kemerovo, a city located about 2,000 miles east of Moscow. In video shown on state television, Putin was shown meeting families of victims.

Investigators said that the fire alarm system had not been working in the week leading up to the fire; however, The Moscow Times said that a security guard was believed to have turned it off after the fire triggered the alarm.

Large crowds gathered to mourn the victims as well as protest the official response to the tragedy.

NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow that many of the city's residents believe that the authorities are lying about the death toll — that it is actually much higher than reported.

The region's Deputy Governor Vladimir Chernov showed up at the rally to dismiss the rumors of hundreds of unreported deaths. He said he was ready to resign if the people wanted that.

The crowd responded "Resign, resign!"

In a televised briefing Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov, confirmed 64 deaths and that some of the dead had been found inside a cinema.

Anna Zarechneva, who was in a theater on the top floor watching a movie with her husband and son when the fire broke out, told the AP: "We didn't hear the fire alarm, they even didn't turn on the light during the show."

Zarechneva said she heard about the fire when a man ran into the theater shouting. "That movie could have been the last for us, I've only just realized that," she said.

The Moscow Times reports that 11 people were being treated in local hospitals, including an 11-year-old boy in serious condition.

About 200 animals from a petting zoo inside the mall, including rabbits, turtles, pigs, goats and rodents, were also killed in the blaze, the Tass news agency said.

The Times writes that Russian media outlets were considering three theories as to how the fire started – an electrical short-circuit, arson by teenagers or "an accident involving candles lit during a children's birthday party."

The AP reports that "Some accounts indicated that the blaze first erupted in a children's game room and spread quickly, filling the huge building with toxic fumes."

Four people have been detained for questioning including tenants and shop owners, the Times said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.