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Home World News Washington Post World News In Dnipro missile attack: nine floors of indiscriminate death and destruction

In Dnipro missile attack: nine floors of indiscriminate death and destruction

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Neighbors gather at the scene of a Russian missile strike that destroyed part of a residential building in Dnipro, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

Remark

DNIPRO, Ukraine – For the better part of three days, the relatives of the missing stood guard outside in the freezing cold, hoping for miracles.

With each hour, the chances of the best-case scenario – that their loved ones would be found alive, faded. At the very least, they craved certainty about the fate of those trapped in the rubble of the nine-story apartment building decimated by a Russian missile on Saturday.

Now, less than a week later, many are faced with a painful realization: some victims may never be found.

The sheer force of the explosion, which Ukrainian officials say was caused by a Russian Kh-22 missile, meant that some of the victims were burned, dismembered or otherwise left unidentifiable. The official cleanup was declared complete on Tuesday. At least 46 people were killed and 11 are still missing, although forensic experts are still examining the site’s debris for signs of human remains.

Roman Zhuravskyi’s mother is still missing after a Russian missile hit their home in Dnipro, Ukraine on January 14. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

The attack destroyed more than 70 apartments in a sprawling complex that housed not only local residents but also many people displaced from elsewhere in the country. Some had fled the country’s harshest front lines to the east and south, only for the war to catch up with them in Dnipro, a city considered a relatively safe haven.

The rocket attack on a residential apartment building, located on a street called Victory Embankment overlooking the Dnieper River, exposed some of the most terrifying realities of this war. Security is fleeting. Strikes are unpredictable. The smallest, most banal decisions make the difference between life and death.

Accustomed to airstrikes warnings, few people in Dnipro regularly take shelter when sirens blare here — and in any case, Ukrainian officials say their air defenses were initially unable to detect the barrage of missiles that Russia launched that Saturday.

But even if the residents of this block had been rushed to lower levels for safety, it probably wouldn’t have helped their chances of survival. Many of the dead were on the lower floors of the building when the rocket hit, causing part of the building to collapse into a jumble of concrete and metal.

Among the dead are a mother and father from the city of Nikopol, who moved to Dnipro with their children Karolina (14) and Timur (9) in July. The children have been hospitalized. On Instagram, their aunt wrote that they had left Nikopol, which is regularly fired upon from the Russian-occupied territory across the river, because “it was hell there.” The family’s apartment in Dnipro was on the eighth floor.

Olena Zhuravska, 73, fled the city of Toretsk last year, located near some of the fiercest fighting in the eastern region of Donetsk. In Dnipro she had an apartment on the fourth floor.

Her family was at church when the rocket hit; but she felt unwell and stayed at home. She had a bad feeling about the day and was on the phone with her son, Roman, when the building was hit. Her body has not been found. Roman hurried to the location and realized that most of the floors had just disappeared. “I knew I would probably never see my mom again,” he said.

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One of the most shared images of the aftermath of the strike showed 23-year-old Anastasia Shvets, holding a stuffed animal, her face clearly shocked as she sat about five floors up, cooped up in her destroyed apartment. She survived, but her parents were killed just four months after her boyfriend was killed fighting Russian troops on the front lines.

From the street, passers-by can still see the remains of a yellow kitchen on the ninth floor. The wall has been torn away, but the chairs at the table remain almost perfectly. Mykhailo Korynovskyi, 39, a boxing coach, was home alone in that apartment when the missile hit. His wife and two young daughters were in a nearby store.

Korynovskyi’s funeral, at the gym where he trained, was packed with hundreds of people holding red flowers – many of them grieving young athletes. Two young boys in the front row wiped away tears as Ukrainian Orthodox priests blessed his coffin. Korynovskyi’s mother and wife sobbed.

During the ceremony, news alerts flashed across attendees’ phones: Another victim was just found dead in the rubble, this time a small child.

The crowd left the gym and went to the cemetery on the other side of town, where Korynovskyi’s friends took turns touching his coffin and throwing dirt on his grave. Two young men stood aside and cursed Russia. “It’s a good thing he is used to be‘ said one softly. “The sad thing is he wasn’t there long,” the other replied.

When the missile hit, Korynovskyi’s ninth-floor neighbor, Maksym Omelianenko, 31, was deployed to the frontline in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that is home to some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Omelianenko had just returned from a mission to his base when he saw on Instagram that Dnipro, his hometown, had been hit. At first he thought the explosion was on the other side of town. Then he realized that a missile had hit his building, where his mother still lived.

“I was in complete shock,” he said.

His commander ordered him to leave immediately. Omelianenko knew he could be killed on the way out, which is “constantly fired upon,” he said. But a fellow soldier offered to drive him. “We just left at our own risk,” he said.

The journey took about four hours. After an hour on the road, he received a call that his 2-year-old dog, a herding mix named Vice, was injured but alive. His mother, Lyudmila, was still missing.

Then friends on the ground sent him a “video of a piece of my kitchen and there was a person [waving] a piece of cloth,” he said. He hoped it was his mother.

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Lyudmila, who had been in her apartment on the top floor, was mostly buried under the rubble. Rescue workers continued to try to reach her, but they feared their efforts would collapse more of the building and bury her.

From her hospital bed this week, she recalled being trapped for hours before being rescued, listening to her neighbor’s daughter scream for help. The neighbor had received her family that day for an Orthodox New Year’s celebration. After the strike, she said, the woman’s daughter hung from the side of the building, holding on to the family’s stove.

“I heard her screaming “Mom! Mom! Help me!” she said. “But her mother was unconscious. She couldn’t help it. She screamed for so long… it broke my heart to hear her scream like that.

“I don’t know if she fell,” she added. “Maybe she’s still alive, but no one can find her.”

The rest of that family, she said, “are all dead now.”

Lyudmila’s son was able to visit her in the hospital the day after the strike. Her legs were crushed and she had wounds on her face. Other neighbors lay bandaged in the beds around her.

The strike deeply shocked Omelianenko, who said he was used to the war he fights as a soldier, but never imagined it would come to his own house.

In the building “there were people who had left from Nikopol, from Donetsk,” he said. “They were fleeing from some kind of shelling, but they ended up dying from this attack in Dnipro.”

Yevhen Solovyov helped his wife’s parents, Iryna Vitalyeva and Viktor Vitalyev, furnish their new apartment on the fifth floor of the building last Saturday.

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“As always, he helped everyone who needed help,” said his sister-in-law, Yulia Solovyova. They were all supposed to get together for a family dinner later that day, but the three “didn’t make it out in time,” she said.

For three days, Yevhen’s wife, Svetlana, and brother, Yuriy, waited outside the building for news. Volunteers walked around distributing food, clothing and bedding to survivors. Police officers warmed themselves by improvised fires. More and more bodies were recovered from the wreckage.

Eventually rescuers found the body of Svetlana’s mother. Her father and Yevhen are still missing. Yevhen leaves behind two daughters, a 7-year-old and an 18-month-old. The family is consumed, Solovyova said, with “so much grief”.

Just after Omelianenko was reunited with his mother, he had to return to Bakhmut. His mother, he said, told him that when she recovers, despite the risks, she wants to move closer to him, closer to the front lines.

“Of course she’s very worried about me. She told me to be careful and come back alive and unharmed,” he said during a phone call from a basement in the besieged city this week. “But she understands that we are doing it for the whole of Ukraine,” he said.

Back in Dnipro, even residents whose apartments are not badly damaged are not allowed to live there, due to the risk of other parts of the building collapsing. On Wednesday, some residents were allowed back in to collect their belongings.

Among them was Olga Korynovska, the widow of Korynovskyi, the boxing coach. On Instagram, she posted videos in which she searched their belongings. First photos of their marriage and their children. And somehow her husband’s toolbox, undamaged. She sighed.

“This is all that’s left of the past nine years,” she said.

Serhii Korolchuk and Zoeann Murphy contributed to this report.

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