Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2018.

'In a Deathtrap'

A deadly shopping mall blaze raises wider concerns over fire safety in Russia


In March, when a fire broke out in a shopping mall in the Siberian industrial city of Kemerovo, occupants faced a gauntlet of obstacles to getting out alive. Fire alarms didn’t sound, there were no fire sprinklers in the building, and exits were blocked.


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As a result, scores of people became trapped. Media accounts detailed heart-wrenching cell phone calls made by victims in their final moments. “Tell Mummy that I loved her,” one 11-year-old girl told her aunt over the phone before she died, according to the New York Times. The blaze killed 64 people, 41 of them children.

The incident incensed critics of a Russian government that they say is responsible for the deadly fire and for countless others that regularly occur throughout the country, and prompted calls for Russia to look at how nations like the United States address fire safety. Russia’s death rate per 100 fires is more than 30 times greater than that of the U.S. A week after the Kemerovo fire, a fire in a shopping mall in Moscow killed one person and injured six firefighters.

“Russia needs to study the best practices of developed countries in [fire prevention and] firefighting, and implement these practices here,” Russian political activist Aleksei A. Navally said in a video posted on his website shortly after the fire. Navally, a well-known critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, also accused Russian officials of being more concerned with taking bribes than bolstering national fire safety.

In response, some Russian officials accused critics like Navally of exploiting the victims of the Kemerovo fire to push a political agenda. “We have come to the conclusion that this was a clear, planned demonstration aimed at discrediting the government,” Vladimir Chernov, a vice-governor in the Kemerovo region, said of a vigil that occurred following the fire, according to the Guardian. “Very many [of the demonstrators] were stoked up young people. … People attended without understanding what they were doing there.”

U.S. as a model?

Don Bliss, NFPA’s vice president of field operations, echoed Navally’s sentiment and provided more context as to why Russia’s fire death rate is markedly higher than other countries’. “Although Russia has strict fire regulations, there is little enforcement and corruption is rampant,” he said. “Two other factors contributing to the high fire death rate are the climate—extreme cold conditions result in fires from heating appliances being misused, poorly installed, or poorly maintained—and the high rate of alcoholism in the country, which can be tied to fires related to problems like smoking and unattended cooking.”

Several fires in Russia have killed more than a dozen people at a time over the past 10 years. In 2013, 38 people, mostly psychiatric patients, died in a blaze that tore through a hospital near Moscow; barred windows prevented victims from escaping. In 2009, over 150 people died as flames sparked by illegal indoor fireworks swept through the Lame Horse nightclub in the city of Perm, where emergency exits were blocked.

According to a report released last year by the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, which was sponsored by the State Fire Academy of Emercom of Russia and co-authored by NFPA, the number of fire deaths per 100 fires is 6.4 in Russia, compared to 0.2 in the U.S. In fact, of the 30 other countries listed in the report, including developing countries like Mongolia and Vietnam, only Belarus, formerly part of the Soviet Union, had a higher fire death rate per 100 fires (7.9) than Russia. “We don’t need to invent anything new,” Navally said. “If [another country has] 10 times less people dying in fires, we shouldn’t be ashamed to say, ‘Guys, we want to look at how you do things and then do the same.’”

To get the U.S. perspective, Anush Avetisyan, a journalist who works for a U.S. government–funded Russian-language news outlet, reached out to NFPA a day after the Kemerovo blaze. In a video interview with Avetisyan, Robert Solomon, director of NFPA’s Building Fire Protection division, highlighted the guidance U.S. codes and standards like NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, provide in preventing fire deaths in occupancies such as shopping malls. “If the doors are locked and there’s a fire, you essentially send the occupants to their deathbeds. You put them in a deathtrap,” Solomon said. “So the importance of having unlocked [and unblocked] doors in any type of building is so, so important, so critical. It’s one of the things that in the U.S. codes we talk about throughout.” Solomon also alluded to guidance within these codes that require carefully designed paths of egress and sometimes automatic fire sprinklers.

In statements by the Kremlin, Putin blamed the Kemerovo fire on “criminal negligence and mismanagement.” “What is going on here?” he said. “People, children, came to a mall for entertainment ... How could this have happened?” Five people were detained, according to the statements, including a mall security guard who officials said failed to pull a backup fire alarm. The main alarm had been broken since March 19, they said.

The Kemerovo fire ranks as the eighth deadliest in a retail property globally since 1970, according to NFPA statistics sourced from news reports. The deadliest occurred in 2008 in a supermarket in Paraguay, where more than 300 people were killed. As was the case in Russia, poor emergency exits and an inadequate fire detection system were cited as reasons for the high death toll. The 11 deadliest retail fires listed by NFPA since 1970 have occurred in either Asia or Latin America.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images