(CNN)Russians on Wednesday mourned the victims of a deadly shopping mall fire at memorial services across the country, releasing white balloons as flags fluttered at half-staff.
Russians mourn at first funerals for mall fire victims as fury mounts
The blaze tore through the Winter Cherry mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo on Sunday while it was packed with families on the first weekend of spring break. Authorities said 64 people died, 41 of them children.
Grieving family members clutched flowers and photographs of young schoolchildren at the first funerals held for victims. Investigators have so far released 21 bodies for burial.
The chairman of Russia's federal investigating authority, the Investigative Committee, has indicated that a short circuit or bad wiring could be to blame for the blaze, state news agency RIA-Novosti reported. Investigators said the mall's fire exits were blocked and an alarm system turned off.
A shopping mall security guard, who investigators believe failed to turn on the fire alarm, was arrested on Wednesday, state news agency Tass reported. Earlier, he told press that the alarm was out of order. He is one of two arrested and three detained in connection with the case so far.
President Vladimir Putin, who flew to the city to offer his condolences to the victims' families, declared a national day of mourning for Wednesday. Putin blamed the blaze on "criminal negligence" and promised that those responsible would be held accountable.
The Kemerovo fire comes at a delicate domestic political moment for Putin, who sailed to a re-election victory on March 18.
As the scandal over the fire tragedy unfolded, Western allies led by the UK, EU and the US announced a coordinated expulsion of more than 100 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. The UK blames Russia for the attack on the spy; the Kremlin has denied any involvement.
Thousands of distraught locals demonstrated on Tuesday outside the municipal building in Kemerovo, demanding the ouster of officials, chanting: "Resign" and "Murderers!" They alleged that the official death toll has been drastically underestimated, Tass reported.
Anger boiled over at a vigil in Moscow, spawning a political demonstration. Protesters held banners reading: "Bribes kill children" and "We are all burning," with chants of "The authorities must answer!" and "Putin resign!" ringing out over the crowd.
But Russian authorities said that no one was unaccounted for in the fire, Tass reported. And the committee investigating the blaze accused Ukrainian blogger Nikita Kuvikov, a prankster who calls himself Yevgeny Volnov, of spreading false information about the death toll.
Kemerovo, a city of about half a million people, has been left reeling by the tragedy -- one of the deadliest blazes in Russia in recent years, according to state media.
Harrowing accounts have emerged in recent days about the chaos that ensued as the fire engulfed the converted Soviet-era sweet factory, sweeping through a children's play area and movie complex on the shopping center's top floor.
Witnesses described panicked scenes as shoppers attempted to flee -- some jumping out of windows of the four-story building. A number of the victims, many of them children, died inside a locked movie theater.
Anna Zarechneva, who was in the mall's cinema when the fire broke out, said moviegoers had little warning until the blaze was well underway. "No fire alarm to be heard. The crowd broke through one narrow door. The second exit for some reason was closed," Zarechneva wrote on Instagram.
A father who lost his daughter in the fire recalled her final words: "She said, 'Dad, I love you. I'm suffocating, I'm fainting.'"
A number of children stuck inside the mall shared goodbye messages on Russian social-media platform VKontake before their accounts went silent.
One fifth-grade student, Maria Moroz, posted: "We're burning. It's probably goodbye." Her entire class was among the dead, state-run Rossiya 24 reported, citing the school's principal.