“There could be children”: search continues in the rubble of Kremenchuk | Ukraine
JNearly four hours after two Russian X-22 cruise missiles hit a crowded shopping center in Kremenchuk, small plumes of black smoke could still be seen rising from the smoldering ruins. Dozens of people who feared their loved ones were inside the building when the deadly blasts ripped through it watched in eerie silence as a giant crane removed sections of the collapsed roof, exposing blackened debris and twisted metal in below.
Away from passers-by, rescuers had placed a stretcher where they carefully placed fragments of charred human remains found in the rubble.
Authorities estimate there were between 200 and 1,000 people inside at the time of the attack. Many managed to flee to a nearby bomb shelter when they heard air raid sirens. Others did not arrive in time and remained trapped inside. At least 18 people were killed and 21 are still missing.
When the missile hit Monday at 3:53 p.m. local time (1:53 p.m. BST), it sparked a huge fire that took more than four hours for 300 rescuers to extinguish.
Mykola Lukash of the Kremenchuk district prosecutor’s office said members of her team recovered dozens of body fragments.
“We have to do DNA tests to identify them,” Lukash said. “What concerns us are the 21 missing person reports that had been submitted by residents searching for missing loved ones in the building.”
For more than 20 hours, soldiers, volunteers, firefighters and police have been working tirelessly to recover the bodies from the rubble in the hope of finding survivors.
“We pulled out several bodies but there are definitely others stuck under the rubble,” said Oleksii, 46, a firefighter. “It’s normally a very busy place.”
Every day, hundreds of people go to the Kremenchuk mall to shop or have a coffee and chat with friends. The only difference between this mall and any other mall in the world is that an unpredictable war is raging here, a war capable of destroying lives in seconds, even in a place hundreds of miles from the front line or in towns that have never been bombed before. The truth is that nowhere in Ukraine is safe from Russian missiles or air raids.
“I left the building two minutes before the explosion,” said Yevhenia Semyonova, 38, a saleswoman at a sportswear store inside the mall. “My colleagues who work in bigger stores, like the supermarket for example, had to wait for customers to come out before they could leave. We were lucky because there were no customers in our store during the alarm.
“At the start of the war, all the shops stopped working during the air sirens. But eventually people got used to it and started ignoring the sirens. Unfortunately, this is also what happened yesterday. Many people I know and some friends are still missing.
The Guardian saw a phone message purportedly sent by local mall management on June 23 urging employees not to leave the mall when the air raid sirens went off.
“As of today, this mall will no longer close during aviation alarms,” the post read. “The mall operates from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. No breaks.”
At least five employees have confirmed receiving the message.
A woman who worked in the supermarket inside the mall said she managed to escape immediately after the blast.
“Usually on Mondays I had to take my little girl to work because the kindergarten was closed. But luckily yesterday I found someone to take care of her while I was working. Some of my colleagues did not survive. Someone will certainly still be there, under the rubble.
Oleksandra, who worked in a jewelry store, was supposed to open her shop today at 10am. “I had the day off yesterday,” she said, tears streaming down her face as she surveyed the rubble. “I had coffee with my colleagues here yesterday morning. There are people I know who are missing. There was a huge toy store inside the mall. There could be children.
As night fell in Kremenchuk on Monday, the burnt-out building was illuminated by searchlights as rescuers and soldiers scoured the rubble, and relatives of missing people waited across the street.
“Relatives are confused and anxious,” said Yulia Fesieieva, a senior psychologist at the Poltava regional state emergency department. “We observe and identify people who are visibly in distress. We approach them and introduce ourselves and try to help them. I’ve spoken to about 20 people so far.
She continued: “There was a young man who was shaking, holding his dog in his arms. He was extremely nervous and in shock. He was trying to call his wife who had left home with her best friend to buy food for their pet but she didn’t pick up. Finally, fortunately, his wife left the building 10 minutes before the attack. But her best friend, unfortunately, decided to stay and continue shopping. She was unable to leave the building before the explosion and died in an intensive care unit.
The attack came on the day of a G7 meeting in Germany where leaders discussed ways to punish Moscow for its invasion and pledged to support Ukraine “as long as it takes”.
Ukraine’s air force command said in a statement that Russia hit the mall, located near a train station, with two X-22 cruise missiles fired by Tu-22M long-range bombers . According to Kyiv, the planes fired their rockets into the sky over Russia’s Kursk region, near the Ukrainian border.
Commenting on the strike in his overnight video address, Volodymyr Zelenskiy called Russia “the biggest terrorist organization in the world”.
On Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the fire in the Kremenchuk shopping center was caused by “the detonation of stored ammunition for Western weapons”. No evidence was offered to support the claim.
Outside the mall, Ukrainian police set up a table where they placed twisted pieces of metal believed to be from the missiles.
Volodymyr Vasylenko, 61, who was born and raised in Kremunchuk, arrived at the site of the attack on Tuesday morning to lay flowers among the rubble. “I don’t know how and why we deserve this,” he said. “They want us to live in fear. But we must not be afraid. We can just keep praying. Maybe it was God’s plan so we could finally get the weapons we needed. In the meantime, we can do nothing but continue to do what we can do.
Additional reporting by Artem Mazhulin