Yerevan blast death toll rises to 16

By Mark Dovich

The death toll in a large explosion Sunday at the popular Surmalu shopping strip in Yerevan rose overnight to 16, the Ministry of Health announced Tuesday morning. Among the victims whose bodies were pulled from the rubble overnight were a young child and a pregnant woman, said Minister of Emergency Situations Armen Pambukhchyan.

Rescue crews and volunteers from the Red Cross continue working around the clock to search the wreckage for possible survivors. According to the Ministry of Emergency Situations, eight people remain unaccounted for: seven Armenian citizens and one Iranian national.

The number of people injured in the blast has risen to 62, the Ministry of Health said. Most have already been discharged from the hospital.

On Sunday afternoon, a large explosion at a warehouse storing fireworks ripped through Surmalu, a large wholesale and retail shopping strip located close to central Yerevan.

The blast and a subsequent fire destroyed large portions of the shopping strip and led to the partial collapse of a nearby three-story building. The damaged area covers roughly 8,000-9,000 square meters, equal to about one and a half American football fields.

Pambukhchyan said Monday his ministry was “almost” certain the explosion was not an intentional act of terrorism, noting that footage of the blast does not suggest a bomb had been planted.

The Prosecutor General’s office has opened a criminal investigation into the explosion, citing possible breaches of fire safety regulations. As of now, it remains unclear what caused the fireworks to detonate.

The Urban Planning, Technical and Fire Safety Inspection Body, which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, said Sunday it found over a dozen fire safety violations at Surmalu during an inspection last March.

CivilNet reached out to the agency on Monday to ask if inspectors followed up and tracked steps that should have been taken to address the violations since then. An agency spokesperson initially agreed to comment, but then declined to provide any additional information.

Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations Davit Hambaryan told CivilNet in a sit-down interview Monday that “a thorough investigation will provide the answer to the question of who failed in what.”

“Let me say the following,” Hambaryan continued. “We still have a lot to do as a society to form and strengthen a culture of safety, to raise the public consciousness around safety, and to consistently implement concrete steps on a daily basis.”

In fact, Sunday’s explosion was not the first incident of its kind at Surmalu: A large overnight fire that broke out in the shopping strip’s main building last April destroyed several warehouses of merchandise, but did not result in any casualties.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and a number of other high-ranking officials visited the blast site Monday to survey the damage, but Pashinyan has not commented publicly on the tragedy.

Pashinyan’s office said Tuesday the Armenian government would declare a national day of mourning once rescue crews complete their work, without specifying a date.

Condolences have poured in from regional governments and foreign embassies in Yerevan.

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