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In the Dnipro missile strike, nine floors of random death and destruction

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

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

With each hour, the odds of the best-case scenario – of their loved ones being found alive – faded. At the very least, they yearned for certainty about the fate of those trapped in the rubble of the nine-story building decimated by a Russian missile on Saturday.

Now, not quite a week later, many face a painful realization: some victims may never be found.

The force of the blast, which Ukrainian officials say was caused by a Russian Kh-22 missile, caused some victims to be incinerated, dismembered or rendered unidentifiable. The official cleanup was declared complete on Tuesday. At least 46 people have been killed and 11 are still missing, although forensic experts are still examining debris from the site for 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 many displaced people from elsewhere in the country. Some had fled the country’s harshest frontlines to the east and south, only for the war to catch up with them in Dnipro, a city that was seen as a relative haven of peace.

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

Accustomed to air raid alerts, few in Dnipro regularly take shelter when the sirens sound here – and, in any event, Ukrainian officials say their air defenses were initially unable to detect the dam missiles launched by Russia on Saturday.

But even if the inhabitants of this block had rushed to lower levels for safety, it probably would not have improved their chances of survival. Many of those killed were on the lower floors of the building when the missile struck, collapsing a section of the building into a jumble of concrete and metal.

Among the dead are a mother and father from the town of Nikopol, who moved to Dnipro with their children, Karolina, 14, and Timur, 9, in July. The children are hospitalized. On Instagram, their aunt wrote that they had left Nikopol, which is regularly bombarded from 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 town of Toretsk, near some of the worst fighting in the eastern Donetsk region, last year. In Dnipro, she had an apartment on the fourth floor.

His family was at church when the missile hit; but she did not feel well and stayed home. She had a bad feeling about the day and was on the phone with her son, Roman, when the building was hit. His body has not been found. Roman rushed to the site and realized that most of the floors had simply disappeared. “I knew I would probably never see my mother again,” he said.

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One of the most shared images in the aftermath of the strike showed Anastasia Shvets, 23, holding a stuffed animal, her face in obvious shock as she sat about five stories up trapped 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 line.

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

Korynovskyi’s funeral, at the gymnasium where he trained, was filled with hundreds of people holding red flowers, including many 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 were broadcast to attendees’ phones: another victim was found dead in the rubble, this time a small child.

The crowd left the gymnasium for the cemetery across town, where Korynovskyi’s friends took turns touching his coffin and throwing dirt on his grave. Two young men stood to the side, cursing Russia. “It’s a good thing that he has been“, then said one of them quietly. “The sad thing is that he didn’t stay long,” replied the other.

When the missile hit, Korynovskyi’s ninth-floor neighbor Maksym Omelianenko, 31, was deployed to the front line in Bakhmut, the town in eastern Ukraine where some of the fiercest fighting is taking place. of the war.

Omelianenko had just returned to his base from a mission 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 shock,” he said.

His commander ordered him to leave immediately. Omelianenko knew he could be killed on the road, which is “constantly bombarded”, he said. But a fellow soldier volunteered to drive it. “We just left at our own risk,” he said.

The trip 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, had been injured but was alive. His mother, Lyudmila, was still missing.

Then friends there 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 was in her top-floor apartment, was largely buried under the rubble. Rescuers kept trying to reach him, but feared their efforts would cause more of the building to collapse and bury him.

From her hospital bed this week, she recalled being trapped for hours before her rescue, listening to her neighbour’s daughter cry out for help. The neighbor had hosted her family that day for an Orthodox New Year celebration. After the strike, she said, the woman’s daughter was left hanging over the side of the building, holding the family’s stove.

“I heard how she was screaming ‘Mommy! Mom! Help me!” she said. “But her mother was unconscious. She couldn’t help. 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 alive but no one could find her.”

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

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

The strike deeply shook Omelianenko, who said he was used to the war he fought as a soldier, but never imagined it would come to him.

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

Yevhen Solovyov was helping 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 her brother, Yuriy, stood outside the building waiting for news. Volunteers moved in, distributing food, clothing and bedding to survivors. The police warmed themselves by makeshift fires. More and more bodies were recovered from the wreckage.

Eventually, rescuers found the body of Svetlana’s mother. His father and Yevhen are still missing. Yevhen leaves two daughters, one 7 years old and one 18 months old. The family is consumed, Solovyova said, by “so much grief.”

Right after Omelianenko found his mother, he had to return to Bakhmut. His mum, he said, told him that when she recovered she would want to move near him, closer to the front line, despite the risks.

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

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

Among them was Olga Korynovska, the widow of Korynovskyi, the boxing trainer. On Instagram, she posted videos of herself rummaging through their belongings. First, photos of their wedding and their children. And, in a way, her husband’s toolbox, intact. She sighed.

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

Serhii Korolchuk and Zoeann Murphy contributed to this report.

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