By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
MOSCOW (AP) — Flags flew at half-staff across Russia on Wednesday as the country mourned 64 victims — many of them children — of a shopping mall fire in Siberia.
The blaze engulfed the four-story mall in the eastern city of Kemerovo on Sunday while it was packed with parents and children on the first weekend of the school recess.
Investigators identified a short circuit as a possible cause and said the emergency exits were locked shut, hampering any evacuation. Some of the victims, many of them young children, died inside a locked movie theater.
Wednesday was declared a day of mourning in Russia, and thousands of people have been bringing flowers and stuffed toys to makeshift memorials across the country.
The bodies of all 64 victims have been recovered and no one is unaccounted-for, Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Vladlen Aksyonov told the RIA Novosti news agency.
The investigators have released 21 bodies for burial. The first funerals for the victims were held Wednesday morning in Kemerovo, a city of half a million people 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) east of Moscow that has been paralyzed with grief.
Among the first people buried were a grandmother and her two grandchildren— 8 and 10 — who died in the locked movie theater while watching cartoons. They were all buried in the same grave.
Elsewhere in Kemerovo, residents were mourning English teacher Tatyana Darsaliya who also died in the fire. Deputy Principal Irina Borisova told the Tass news agency after the requiem service that Darsaliya was “much loved and pupils loved her classes.”
On Tuesday, thousands of angry, distraught residents rallied on Kemerovo’s main square for 10 hours, demanding that local officials conduct a full and transparent probe of the tragedy. Some mistrust the official death toll of 64, saying it must be higher.
A court in Kemerovo is expected to rule later Wednesday on the arrests of one of the mall’s tenants, the mall’s technical director, two employees of a company maintaining the fire alarm system and a security guard who the investigators said turned off the fire alarm.
Speaking in court Wednesday, security guard Sergei Antyushin said in remarks carried by the Dozhd television station that the mall’s fire alarm did go off and that he called emergency services when it did. He did confirm, however, that the mall’s public announcement system has not been operational for two weeks.