KEMEROVO, Russia — Trapped inside a movie theater at a burning shopping center, 11-year-old Vika Pochankina made a panicked phone call to her aunt. “I’m suffocating. Tell Mama that I loved her,” the girl said.
Yevgenia Pochankina told her niece to cover her nose with her clothes to fend off the smoke.
“After a moment, she disconnected,” the aunt told The Associated Press.
The deaths of 64 people — including 41 children — in a Siberian shopping center fire on March 25 have tormented their loved ones, bringing not only grief over those they lost but deep dismay about the state of life in Russia.
Relatives of the dead — and many others in Russia — ask why the shopping center’s emergency exits were locked, why the mall’s fire alarms didn’t sound, whether the center ever met building standards or if inspectors were bribed to turn a blind eye to deficiencies.
Living in Kemerovo, a Siberian city 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) east of Moscow, they are hurt and angry over what they see as official callousness after the fire. The regional governor didn’t visit the scene, President Vladimir Putin didn’t declare a national day of mourning until two days after the fire, and officials have dismissed their protests over the blaze as political opportunism.
“This tragedy reflects all of Russia’s problems — the corruption of officials who closed their eyes to problems with fire safety, uncoordinated work of the special services, the imperviousness of authorities,” said Rasim Yaraliyev, head of a citizen’s group pressing for answers about the fire.
Vika was one of six schoolchildren from the village of Treshchevsky who had traveled 45 kilometers (30 miles) that day to Kemerovo, a trip rewarding them for being good students. As they sat in the theater watching an animated film, a fire broke out in the four-story Winter Cherry mall.
Vika and her classmates were among the dead. Teacher Oksana Yevseyeva, the trip’s chaperone, had left the children to watch the movie themselves in the theater while she did some shopping. She was on the first floor when the fire broke out above.
“I begged the guards to give me a mask and let me in to the children when the fire started, but they said there is smoke everywhere, you will just die,” she said.
Igor Vostrikov, whose wife, three daughters and a sister died in the fire, told the AP that investigators had let him see him CCTV footage from outside the movie theater, showing that the entrance doors to the room where they died were locked by a man who possibly was trying to keep the smoke out until a rescue team arrived.
On Saturday, he posted a video apparently showing a woman opening the door to that room as smoke began filling the multiplex’s hallway but she apparently says nothing. The video showed people fleeing other rooms.
Six people have been arrested in the case, including the head of the regional construction inspection agency when the shopping center was developed in a former candy factory, and the general director of the company that owns the mall.
But distrust in Russian officials’ promises of a thorough investigation is strong.
“They’re not telling us the truth. Judging by everything, nobody saved the children, they closed them off and abandoned them,” said Olga Begeza, whose daughter Diana wanted to go on the trip but couldn’t because her mother didn’t have the 400 rubles ($7) to pay for it.
“It seems that our lives don’t count for anything. That’s the only thing my family has understood,” she said.
Complaints about official corruption and incompetence are widespread in Russia, and in Kemerovo they are aggravated by what’s seen as an insensitive response from officials.
Although Putin visited Kemerovo on Tuesday, he did not speak to a large gathering of demonstrators demanding answers, protesting corruption and calling for regional officials’ ouster.
Deputy regional governor Sergei Tsivilyov did show up, but incurred the crowd’s anger when he dismissed as “a PR stunt” concerns that the death toll was far higher than officially reported.
In a meeting with Putin, regional governor Aman Tuleyev added to the anger by blaming “”the opposition” and “local busybodies” for fomenting the 10-hour protest.
Tuleyev’s resignation, after more than 20 years in the post, was announced Sunday by the Kremlin. Tsivilyov is now the acting governor.
In the days after the fire, tens of thousands of people in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities streamed to makeshift memorials to the fire victims, bringing flowers and stuffed toys. Officials appear concerned that dismay over the fire could encourage protests that could undermine Putin’s mandate just weeks after he won election to a fourth term.
Andrei Klimov, head of the committee for defense of state sovereignty in the upper house of parliament, warned that such protests could be exploited by Western countries that want to weaken Russia, echoing the frequent contention that the West is inherently “Russophobic.”
“With every protest, they try to transfer it into the political plane — an example of this is the situation in Kemerovo,” he said Friday.
Ksenia Pakhomova, a 24-year-old in Kemerovo, complained that state TV channels were more concerned with Putin’s reputation than with the city’s suffering.
“The federal channels are shouting that it’s necessary to unite around Putin, bring condolences to Putin. What is happening? I feel like I am in some kind of anti-utopia,” said Pakhomova, a regional activist for anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most visible foe.
Russia has a fire death rate far higher than most countries in the developed world. In 2011-15, it recorded 7.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, more than seven times the per-capita fire deaths in the United States, according to the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services.
In Kemerovo, some fear that trend will only continue and that others will suffer life-changing losses like theirs.
“Such tragedies will be repeated, unless the system of corruption is changed,” said Dmitry Kirillov, whose niece died in the Winter Cherry blaze.
“The mourning period will end, but their indifference to people never will,” Begeza said.
Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.