January 16, 2024

Wildberries: Where There's Smoke, There's Fire


Wildberries: Where There's Smoke, There's Fire
Wildberries's warehouse near St. Petersburg on fire. Interfaks, Telegram

In the early hours of January 13, a fire erupted in St. Petersburg at a 100,000m2 (more than 1 million ft2) warehouse belonging to Russia's largest online retailer, Wildberries. All the merchandise inside was burned, costing billions of roubles in damages.

At 7 a.m., stored household chemicals on the first block of the facility caught on fire. Warehouse guards attempted to surveil the 1,800 employees as they evacuated, but they were overpowered by a stampede.

No casualties were reported. Over 270 firefighters and 57 ladder trucks were able to contain the flames a few hours later. Forbes estimated that the damages caused by the fire ranged between R10-20 billion ($113,688,040 to $227,376,080).

English teacher Tatyana Bakalchuk founded Wildberries while on maternity leave in 2004. The online retailer has since expanded to a billion-dollar company delivering products ranging from clothes, electronics, and household supplies to over 18 countries, including the US, Israel, the EU, and former Soviet countries. However, the company was sanctioned by Ukraine in 2021. That same year the company invested R3 billion ($34 million) constructing one of its largest warehouses, near St. Petersburg.

On January 10, a fight between an Azerbaijani and a Tajikistani citizen broke out near the warehouse. The 33-year-old Azerbaijani was hospitalized with knife wounds, and the 35-year-old from Tajikistan was subsequently arrested. On January 11 and 12, authorities raided the Wildberries warehouse and arrested five employees for violating immigration law. Authorities are investigating whether arson was committed in connection with these incidents.

According to state news agency TASS, however, a cable malfunction was to blame for the fire. The St. Petersburg State Construction Authority noted that Wildberries had received permission to build the warehouse but had not applied for a permit to run the facility. On January 12, a pipe broke and flooded an area of the warehouse. Furthermore, the fire alarm had gone off multiple times the day before the incident and was disconnected. The media outlet RBK also speculated that careless handling of the fire could have led to the burning down of the warehouse.

On January 14, prosecutors began a criminal investigation for "abuse of authority" against unidentified employees in charge of fire safety compliance at the warehouse.

Wildberries said it would refund all buyers and compensate sellers for items lost in the flames.

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