Putin, amid emotional scenes at fatal fire scene, pledges action as anger mounts

KEMEROVO/MOSCOW, March 27 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin flew to the scene of a deadly shopping mall fire in Siberia that killed 64 people and promised angry residents on Tuesday that those responsible for what he called criminal negligence would be harshly punished.

The fire, at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo, killed 41 children, according to the Interfax news agency, and the calamitous way it was handled has stirred anger and focused attention on corruption and lax fire safety standards.

Putin, re-elected only this month, laid flowers at a memorial to the victims in the coal-producing region about 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow, before chairing a meeting and declaring a national day of mourning be held on Wednesday.

"What's happening here? This isn't war, it's not an unexpected methane explosion at a coal mine. People came to relax, children. We're talking about demography and losing so many people," Putin angrily told officials.

"Why? Because of some criminal negligence, because of slovenliness. How could this ever happen?," he added. "The first emotion when hearing about the number of dead and dead children is not to cry but to wail. And when you listen to what has been said here, speaking honestly, other emotions arise."

RELATED: Russian shopping mall fire leaves 64 dead

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Russian shopping mall fire leaves 64 dead
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Russian shopping mall fire leaves 64 dead
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 26, 2018: Russian Emergency Situations Ministry employees outside the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 26, 2018: An entrance to the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 26, 2018: Clearing debris at the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 26, 2018: A view of the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 26, 2018: Faucets on a firefighting vehicle outside the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 26, 2018: Clearing debris at the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 25, 2018: Clearing debris at the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 25, 2018: Clearing debris at the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
KEMEROVO, RUSSIA - MARCH 26, 2018: Clearing debris at the Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre in Prospekt Lenina Street where over 50 people were killed in a fire on March 25, 2018. Maxim Grigoryev/TASS (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)
Toys and flowers placed to commemorate the victims of the shopping mall fire in Kemerovo are seen at the Russian embassy in Minsk, Belarus March 27, 2018. The sign reads: "Kemerovo, we are with you. We mourn". REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
A man places flowers to commemorate the victims of the shopping mall fire in Kemerovo, at the Russian embassy in Minsk, Belarus March 27, 2018. The sign reads: "Kemerovo, we are with you. We mourn". REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with victims injured during a fire in a shopping mall, at a hospital in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia March 27, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with locals and relatives of persons missing in a fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia March 27, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the site of fire, that killed at least 64 people at a busy shopping mall, in Kemerovo, Russia March 27, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with locals and relatives of persons missing in a fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, Russia March 27, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Investigators said fire exits had been illegally blocked, the public address system had not been switched on, the fire alarm system was broken, and children had been locked inside cinemas.

The fire swept through the upper floors of the shopping center, where a cinema complex and children's play area were located, on Sunday afternoon.

Hundreds of angry protesters, many of them crying, gathered in central Kemerovo. The mayor, Ilya Seredyuk, tried to speak, but his words were often drowned out by chants calling on him to resign.

"Why don’t they tell us the truth?," shouted one protester.

Many locals do not believe the official death toll of 64 and suspect that hundreds of people were killed in the blaze and that a cover-up is underway, something Putin has flatly denied.

Relatives of the victims say they have compiled a list of 85 people, most of them children, who are still missing.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny called on people to attend a protest event later on Tuesday in Moscow.

RAW ANGER

Public anger in Kemerovo was reflected in protesters' placards.

"How many victims are there really,?" read one, while another suggested corrupt officials had taken a bribe to sign off on the mall's fire safety.

"Vova and Aman to prison!" read another banner, referring to Putin and the local governor.

One senior regional official, Sergei Tsivilev, got down on his knees to apologize to the crowd.

Natalia and Sergei Agarkov, whose two children were killed in the tragedy along with their grandmother stood on the square holding photographs of their dead loved ones.

"Masha was 10, Kostya was eight," Sergei told Reuters. "Masha ... was really good at sport. She should have ran out, but everything was locked. I identified them yesterday. I didn't see Kostya, but recognized him by his little boots."

Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia's Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, told Putin the fire alarm system in the mall had been out of order since March 19 and that a security guard had not turned on the public address system to warn people to evacuate the building.

He said five people had already been detained.

Replying to Putin, Bastrykin said: "Most of the staff ran away and left children and parents and their children to their fate."

"Those workers who should have been responsible for people's safety, for organizing an evacuation, they were the first to run away," he said. (Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov and Maria Kiselyova Writing by Christian Lowe and Andrew Osborn Editing by Richard Balmforth)

RELATED: Vladimir Putin through the years

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Vladimir Putin through the years
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P362575 05: A class photo with Vladimir Putin, (fourth row, second from left) dated 1966 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Laski Diffusion)
368975 01: (AMERICAS ONLY) FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, poses for a photograph in this file photo with his parents Maria and Vladimir Putin in1985 just before his departure to Germany. Putin was sworn in as Russia''s second democratically elected president May 7, 2000, pledging to restore Russia as a great power. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers)
ITAR-TASS: LENINGRAD, USSR. Vladimir Putin seen with his wife Lyudmila and daughter Maria. File photo from family archive was taken in spring 1985. (Photo ITAR-TASS) (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)
St, petersburg mayor anatoly sobchak and austrian chancellor's wife christine vranitzky during a ceremony to name 'austria square' in downtown st, petersburg, austria has pledged to restore the square, future president of russia, vladimir putin, looks on, far left, september 1992. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
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KRASNODAR, RUSSIA: Russian acting President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to a boy (R) during his visit to the Children's regional clinic hospital in Krasnodar 11 February 2000. Putin arrived in Krasnodar for a two-day visit to take a part in the All Russia Conference on emergency measures to stabilise and develop the Russian agro-industrial complex. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) (Photo credit should read SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Uzbek president islam karimov helping rf president vladimir putin put on a traditional robe, uzbekistan, december 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura greet President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila outside of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY4: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (L) pose with their wives Ludmila Putin (2nd L) and Ana Botella before their lunch at Moncloa Palace June 14. Putin said he had no reason to believe the arrest of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was politically motivated but vowed to examine the case, which has stirred stormy protest in Moscow. (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Vladimir Putin - Politician, Mayor St. Petersburg, Russia - signs an agreement about the marketing of inventions. Second Mayor and Senator of Economics of Hamburg Hans-Juergen Krupp (right) (Photo by Ambor/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Moscow, russia, outgoing russian president boris yeltsin (r) shaking hands with russian prime minister and acting president vladimir putin (l) as he leaves moscow's kremlin, the seat of russian power,1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Russian prime minister vladimir putin seen casting his vote during the elections to the state duma, at the polling station #2026 in moscow's kosygina street,moscow, russia, december 19, 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
N362234 01: (FILE PHOTO) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov on August 16, 1999. President Boris Yeltsin announced on national television Friday, Dec. 31, 1999 that he had resigned and presidential elections will be held within 90 days to replace him. Yeltsin said he was stepping down immediately because he wanted Putin to succeed him. Putin, the country's most popular politician, immediately took control of the government and will serve as acting president until the elections. (photo by Laski Diffusion/Liaison Agency)
SEVEROMORSK, RUSSIA - APRIL 7: Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin watches the tactical exercises of Russia's Northern Fleet in the Barentsevo Sea, 06 April 2000. Vladimir Putin spent the night underwater in a nuclear submarine near the Arctic Circle. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
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