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World

Shopping Mall Fire In Central Russia Claims Dozens Of Victims

NOEL KING, HOST:

There is shock in Russia this morning after a fire tore through a shopping mall in Siberia, killing at least 64 people. The fire started on Sunday afternoon, and many of the victims are believed to be children. NPR's Lucian Kim is on the line from Moscow. Good morning, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So this is a fast-moving story. What do we know at this point?

KIM: Well, the latest news is that this death toll has just been rising all morning, and the main reason for that is because people had been reported missing, and they gradually were finding them. I think what's particularly disturbing, as you mentioned, is that there were many children among the victims. The fire broke out on the top floor of the mall, or, the top floors. It's a four-story mall, and that's where there was a play area, a petting zoo, I mean, a whole recreational area for kids. And apparently the roof collapsed on the top floor. There were reports of fire alarms not working, fire exits blocked, even reports of people jumping out. And I think what's really kind of tragic about this is it happened in the town of Kemerovo. It's a Siberian city right in the heart of coal country. People there live in constant danger and constant anxiety, and they went to this shopping center just for a day off.

KING: Absolutely devastating. Do we have any idea of what may have caused the fire?

KIM: Well, right now there are a variety of theories that have been put forth from arson to an accident, possibly kids in the recreational area playing with matches or a lighter. But, of course, this high casualty number has to do with fire safety. And, you know, besides some blocked fire exits or stairwells, there are even reports from eyewitnesses that guards prevented kids from using the stairs.

KING: Wow.

KIM: Yeah. And, I mean, I saw another report that said the cladding on the exterior of the building also helped the fire spread. So far, investigators have detained four people, and they're very interested in questioning the owner of this shopping mall.

KING: Can you tell us anything about fire safety rules in Russia and whether or not this is indicative of a larger problem, or could be?

KIM: Well, let's put it this way. Fire safety rules are often very laxly enforced in Russia. I mean, I myself have been in nightclubs here in Moscow with these elaborate pyrotechnic shows which I honestly found more scary than entertaining. There have been several horrible fires in the past years with dozens of victims. What should also be mentioned is that businesspeople here in Russia often complain that fire inspections are one way for officials to extort bribes. So there was actually a movement to reduce fire inspections. But now of course in the wake of this tragic fire, there are calls from around Russia for much more aggressive inspections.

KING: Well, I wonder, when you have a tragedy of this magnitude in Russia, does it often lead to reform?

KIM: Well, often it causes sort of an outburst of emotion of calls for change. And, I mean, this is not the first tragedy of this kind where there have been calls for more vigilant fire safety. Unfortunately, these kind of tragedies do happen on a regular basis here.

KING: So it sounds like a lot of wait and see. NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thank you so much.

KIM: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.