She said, “Mom, I love you, I love you.” And then nothing more.”

Despite the constant danger of war, life in Ukraine is almost normal at times. Until everything suddenly changed, as it did last week in Dnipro, when a rocket hit an apartment complex. Survivors and relatives look back on that fateful day.

Michael Schwartz/The New York Times

Saturday 14 January. A Russian missile as long as a city bus approaches the target after a trip of about 300 miles. It carries a payload of over 2,000 pounds, ready to explode on impact.

As the rocket descends through the gray sky at supersonic speed, 12-year-old Rostislav Yaroshenko watches TikTok videos in his kitchen on the third floor of Victory Quay 118, a large apartment complex in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. Six floors down, Yevgeny Botvinov and his wife Olha are curled up under a blanket, trying to keep warm while the power is out again.

On the other side of the building, a couple is sitting together in the kitchen on the fourth floor. One couple is heating up a late lunch, and the other is cuddling their 1-year-old son.

It’s like what is now a “normal” Saturday for Ukrainians here, somewhere far from the front lines of the war with Russia. Although there is no complete peace. For example, air strike warnings were blaring all day. Dnipro residents are forced to make decisions that have become almost habitual: move to a safe haven or stay at home? Use the elevator or stairs? Life here seems normal most of the time. And then, suddenly, not anymore.

At about 3.40 pm, on the 325th day of the war in Ukraine, a Russian Kh-22 missile hit the apartment building at Victory Quay 118. More than thirty apartments were immediately engulfed in flames. Only a column of ash remained. Houses are torn to pieces with almost surgical precision, ceilings and walls so crumbled that you can suddenly peer inside half-ruined living rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. A bowl of fruit is still intact on the counter in the kitchen which appears to have opened up like a doll’s house. In another apartment, a painting of a dog hangs curvilinearly on the kitchen wall. The rest of the kitchen is gone.

Nine storeys hole

Last Thursday, the authorities reported that the death toll had risen to 46, including six children. Eighty others were injured. The missile attack in Dnipro is one of the deadliest attacks on civilians since the beginning of the war.

The shape of the apartment building, a massive Soviet-era building, resembles a large, inverted J that wraps around a courtyard. Most of it faces the Dnipro River. About 1,700 people live there. The missile fell over the transition point from the building to the dam. The inhabitants there were killed outright. The government said afterward that some would have smoked because of the force of the blast. The explosion “evaporated” them.

A woman was removed from the affected housing complex.Photo by Nicole Tong for The New York Times

Olha Usova, a 36-year-old dentist, passed. She was on her way to a newly opened gym when the rocket hit. Her husband, Edward, said that one shrapnel pierced her heart. She died instantly. He says he believes that with normal attacks you still have a good chance of survival just by staying “safe” inside. But that was different this time. “In this case, such a missile left us no chance,” he says.

Many survived. By luck, because they were in the “right” place in their house at the time the impact occurred. Many of them were trapped in their apartments and were unable to leave because the force of the missile shattered the stairs on both sides of the building.

Evgeny Botvinov, who at the time of the explosion was cuddling his wife under a blanket, had to extract himself from the remnants of the crooked balcony smashed into his living room. Then he grabbed his wife, who was bleeding profusely, and hurried to the front door. When he opened it, there was only a nine-story large pit, and then rubble smoke.

He remembers seeing through the void a woman lying in the fetal position, partially buried under the rubble of her destroyed apartment. “I thought it was a corpse,” says Botvinov, 48. Then I saw her waving her hand.

Power plant

It is impossible to say whether the housing complex in Dnipro was bombed on purpose. The KH-22 is a missile from the 1960s that was launched by Russian bombers and was usually intended to attack warships at sea.

The power plant across the river, opposite an apartment building, may have been a target. This attack would fit into Russia’s strategy to steal electricity from the Ukrainians. The Kremlin denies that a Russian missile was involved in the attack and says it was a stray Ukrainian air defense missile. Although military experts call this claim countless Russian fabrications.

The day of the attack was a holiday in Ukraine, the day many celebrate the New Year, according to the Orthodox Church calendar. That made Olha Afanasyjeva, 49, worried beforehand. After 11 months of war, Ukrainians believe the Kremlin takes great pleasure in attacking only on holidays.

“I was so scared that day,” she says. “I had a feeling something was about to happen.” She specifically asked her husband not to go hunting as he had planned. Her husband, Oleh Valovi, didn’t like it at first. Rockets fell on a number of cities that day and sirens sounded across the country for hours. “There aren’t many shelters, and I’m tired of running to them. The air raid alarm goes off almost every day, several times a day.”

The couple was sitting at the kitchen table when the missile hit, her left side facing a window, and he was directly in front of him. The explosion shattered the window. Glass and debris tore half of Afanasijeva’s face. Her husband was hardest hit. “Everything was black and bloodstained,” she says. His face turned black under his eyes. The door to their apartment turned out to be blocked, so she ran to the window and began screaming, waving a towel and bathrobe to get the attention of the firefighters gathered below.

At this point, Botvinov frantically pointed his cellphone’s flashlight, worried that his wife, who was bleeding profusely from the head, would lose consciousness. There was no way out of the building. The only “exit” was to fall down nine floors into the hole that was once the stairwell.

Buried under concrete slabs

On the fourth floor, Katerina Zelenska, 27, who is deaf, was trapped under rubble with no way to alert rescuers. Her husband, Oleksiy Zelensky, 28, and their one-year-old son Mikita were nearby. You didn’t know where or what their condition was. Concrete slabs had fallen from the floors above their apartment. Katerina Zelenska somehow managed to call her mom for a while, to quickly say goodbye.

“She said, ‘Mom, I love you, I love you,’” and then nothing more. “It was like that, and then the signal was lost.

Over the next 24 hours, rescuers used cranes and ladders to rescue dozens of people trapped on the upper floors. It took about three hours to get to Yevgeny Botvinov and his wife. Olha Avanasjeva came out first. She says she feels guilty for leaving her husband alone. He passed out on the balcony when firefighters tried to lower him down the stairs.

At the hospital, he proves to have a surprisingly good sense of humor for someone whose body has been pierced from head to toe by glass. He says he doesn’t understand her. Why do the Russians choose this goal? “I work for a company that deals with agriculture and sells tractor parts. Quite a peaceful profession. “My death will certainly not have any military significance.”

Ole Valovye was sitting at the dining table across from the window when the missile hit.  Glass shards pierced his face and torso.  Photo by Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Ole Valovye was sitting at the dining table across from the window when the missile hit. Glass shards pierced his face and torso.Photo by Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

It is unclear how rescuers finally noticed Katerina Zelenska, the deaf woman. On the morning after the missile attack, firefighters, bound by a lifeline suspended from a crane, were working frantically at the spot where her apartment used to be. They removed the wreckage for hours. Finally, she emerged covered in dust, alive but completely terrified. For the next 48 hours, firefighters continued to cut through the concrete slabs that had fallen on Zelenska’s apartment, searching for her husband and son.

The couple’s family gathered on Tuesday morning at the site of the disaster. They keep a silent vigil. Until Zelenska’s father starts screaming his anger. Mykola-Kulak exclaims: “Russians, let them destroy them all, these devils.” He grabs his phone to show a video of his grandson. “This child is still under the rubble! I curse them and wish that two or three children from every Russian family would be buried somewhere under the rubble, just like this boy.”

Shortly thereafter, rescuers remove the bodies – first son Mikita, then Katerina’s husband Oleksey – with a special crane. They are placed on the ground in black body bags. Their families await the daunting task of getting to know them. Oleksiy’s parents kneel in front of their son’s body, unzip the bag and caress him for several minutes while he cries.

Katerina Zelenska’s parents leave for the hospital to see their daughter, who was admitted there two days ago. There, in her hospital bed, she had to learn via the Internet that the bodies of her husband and son had been found.

Private rescue

On Tuesday afternoon, authorities announced that they had called off the search. By evening, however, firefighters had returned to 118 Victory Quay to conduct another rescue. This came at the request of Rostislav, the boy who was watching TikTok videos when the missile fell.

He manages to escape from his destroyed apartment by climbing out of a window and climbing down the facade of the building with the help of bystanders. But in the midst of all the chaos, he couldn’t find his white cat, Beliash. “I was more afraid of my cat than myself,” says the boy.

And so the firefighters climb back into the building while Rostislav, his mother Nadja, and a small crowd of onlookers huddle in the darkness below. About 20 minutes later, a firefighter emerges from the kitchen window carrying a red and white cat bed. With the dirty and frightened Belyash in it.

“We are going home,” said Rostislav to the creature, happy that he and his favorite pet were finally reunited. “Not this house, of course, but everything will be fine.”

Rostislav (12 years old) cuddling his cat.  He got off the third floor, and his pet was later rescued.  Photo by Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Rostislav (12 years old) cuddling his cat. He got off the third floor, and his pet was later rescued.Photo by Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

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