Flags flew at half mast and entertainment programs were canceled across Russia on Monday as the country mourned 113 victims of a weekend nightclub inferno caused by sparks from a firework show.
Dozens more fought for their lives in hospitals. Doctors said many had burns over more than 50 percent of their bodies and some were being kept alive by artificial respirators.
Mourners heaped red and white flowers outside the snow-covered entrance to the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm, 1,150 km (720 miles) east of Moscow. Some said corruption had allowed it to ignore fire safety rules for years.
«There is a pain in my soul for the children,» said Natalya Glotova, 55, who braved temperatures of minus 20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) to lay carnations on the steps. «They died in such a terrible, grotesque way.»
President Dmitry Medvedev declared Monday a national day of mourning and has urged harsh punishments for those responsible.
Police have arrested the owner and two managers at the club on charges of manslaughter and breaches of fire safety. Charges have also been brought against the man who organized the fireworks, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited some of the 121 people injured in the fire who were airlifted to Moscow for treatment.
Prosecutors say the fire, Russia’s worst in decades, began when sparks from the fireworks ignited wicker coverings on the ceiling of the packed nightclub, provoking a stampede as partygoers rushed toward a single narrow exit.
Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s. Framed photos of young women illuminated by candles were left in makeshift tributes outside the nightclub.
«Searches are going on and documents are being seized after the court decided to order the arrest of four suspects yesterday evening,» a spokeswoman for regional prosecutors said.
All the dead and injured were now identified, she added.
All entertainment programs on national television and radio were suspended on Monday. As a mark of respect, visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh canceled an event in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater he was due to attend with Medvedev.
In Perm, funerals were held on Monday for 17 more victims. Mourners were skeptical that those responsible for the blaze would ever be held accountable.
«What wrong did she do? Why did it happen?» said the crying mother of victim Natalya Anikina, 40.
More than 15,000 people die each year in fires across Russia and senior officials acknowledge that fire inspections are routinely used as a way to demand bribes from establishments, rather than enforce safety rules.
Medvedev has called for a crusade against corruption but his appeals have so far had little practical effect.
A defense ministry spokesman confirmed that the building housing the club was owned by Russia’s military, a fact likely to fuel criticism of the authorities.
«What’s terrible is that these tragedies happen to us so often,» said 38-year-old businessman Alexei Luzin, his eyes red with tears as he laid flowers near the nightclub. He said his friend was in a serious condition in hospital.
Friday’s fire was the worst nightclub blaze worldwide since nearly 200 people died at a party in Buenos Aires in 2004.