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Cold and quiet Meduza reports from on the ground in Magnitogorsk, at the site of a deadly apartment building collapse

Meduza
Federal Emergency Management Agency / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

In the early morning hours on December 31, a gas line exploded in a 10-story apartment complex on Karl Marx Prospect in the city of Magnitogorsk, almost completely destroying one section of the building. As of January 2, rescue workers had pulled 20 bodies from the rubble, and nearly two dozen souls were still missing, with the search still underway. Hours after the explosion, Meduza special correspondent Evgeny Berg traveled to Magnitogorsk to visit the blast site and the headquarters established in town to provide aid to victims.

A construction crane lowers its large red claw into the pile of concrete and drags out several chunks from the debris, which crumble and scatter dust. A rod of steel reinforcement protrudes from one piece, with a brown bedspread dangling from the tip. The crane spins and the bedspread flutters like a cape in the wind.

There’s an icy breeze outside, it’s -4 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are just 30 minutes until New Year’s. The streets of Magnitogorsk’s 127th microdistrict are deserted, except for a handful of people standing at the police line, beyond which the crane does its work and dozens of emergency workers bustle about. Floodlights illuminate a gaping hole in the long 10-story building. The crane’s red claw dumps the debris into Kamaz heavy trucks, as two emergency workers study the contents. The others inspect the collapsed section of the apartment complex, which is now a 16-foot-high pile of rubble. The responders are searching for people, dead or alive.

The explosion that destroyed the seventh section of the apartment complex on Karl Marx Prospect occurred at six in the morning, local time, on December 31. Investigators’ leading theory is that a gas line in one of the apartments blew up, causing the left side of the building section to collapse from the third to the 10th floor (an archway held up the first two stories). The section’s right side collapsed partially, and you could still see concrete beams and the window frames of glassed-in balconies hanging from the wreckage. The explosion destroyed 26 apartments occupied by 46 people, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and there were 110 residents registered in the entire section of the apartment complex, according to official records.

The crane collects the debris piece by piece. Kamaz trucks have lined up in front of the wreckage, with one arriving just as another leaves, fully loaded, in a steady stream. An elderly woman approaches the police line and asks an officer where she can find the makeshift memorial to the victims. He points her to the courtyard and asks, “Light some candles. The last flame is still burning.”

The new year started 20 minutes ago. The crack of fireworks from neighboring districts resounds in the air, but Magnitogorsk’s 127th microdistrict is cold and quiet.

Rescue workers sift through debris after the explosion. December 31, 2018.
Maxim Shmakov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

“My head just stopped working”

At about five in the morning on December 31, Natalia (who lives in the fifth section of the building on Karl Marx Prospect) was awakened by her dog. “She was tearing around the apartment, and I thought she needed a walk,” the woman recalls. “I took her out, but she was still just as nervous when we got home. I don’t know. Maybe she could sense it.” Natalia went back to bed, but she didn’t have time to fall asleep: suddenly there was a loud crash and her whole apartment started to shake. Photographs fell from the walls.

At 6:03 a.m., Natalia called the emergency responders, running outside and seeing that part of the building had collapsed. A fire had broken out on the third and ninth floors, and something was sparking from the exposed elevator shaft. Others started running up to the wreckage, and some of them, Natalia says, began climbing up the rubble to help people out of the half-destroyed apartments.

“I ran up there, too,” Natalia says. “We pulled out two children, passing them down, hand to hand.” She told Meduza that she’d forgotten her own safety at this point. “My head just stopped working.” She spent the entire day there, and only joined her relatives for New Year’s Eve in the evening. That night, she returned to her home in the half-destroyed apartment complex, saying it was where her “heart” was. She wasn’t alone: in the early morning hours of the new year, the lights in many windows of the 10-story apartment complex were lit.

The next day, several dozen Magnitogorsk locals gathered in the building’s courtyard. People brought flowers, candles, and children’s toys, leaving them in the snow at the police line. A 50-year-old woman stood at this improvised memorial and wept: she’d spent her entire life in this building, and many of her old classmates lived in the destroyed section.

Nearby, a woman in a red knitted cap tried to convince an older man that gas lines simply don’t explode like this. “My husband is a soldier. He ran outside right after the explosion — we live in that building over there — and he says that gas doesn’t cause collapses like this,” she insisted. “Or do you think that Putin and Bastrykin showed up just because? [On December 31, President Vladimir Putin and Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin flew to Magnitogorsk.] It’s definitely a terrorist attack. This is also disadvantaged housing. A lot of the apartments are rented by Tajiks. How do we know they haven’t been recruited by ISIS?” The man listening to this shook his head, unconvinced.

Investigators do not suspect a terrorist attack, but comments on the city’s most popular Vkontakte community draw dozens of likes for accusing the local officials of hiding the number of dead and concealing the true reason for the explosion. (At the time of this writing, most of these comments were deleted.)

By now, the crane is motionless. For several hours, the heavy machinery has been idle, as emergency responders worry that one of the building’s remaining walls could still collapse. The metal claw won’t get back to work until about eight in the evening on New Year’s Day. The apartment complex’s sixth and eighth sections were evacuated the night before, and now some residents are trying to return home. One woman complains to someone over her cell phone that she needs to feed her cat, and another woman says she wants back inside to grab some of her things. The police let no one through.

On January 1, Natalia’s section of the building is also evacuated. She packs several large bags and stands outside, waiting for neighbors. There’s a keyboard synthesizer poking out from one of her bags.

“We could feed the whole city”

By the evening of New Year’s Day, the Federal Emergency Management Service said the bodies of nine victims had been pulled from the rubble. Rescue workers managed to save six people, however, rushing them to the hospital in serious condition. This included an 11-month-old boy who was found 36 hours after the explosion, when responders heard his crying. “[The child] was lying on the linoleum, on a mattress, in a onesie and a diaper. His legs were wrapped in a blanket,” first responder Pyotr Gritsenko told reporters. Found in serious condition, the boy was medevaced to a hospital in Moscow.

After news of the explosion, volunteers online started offering to host families who lost their homes, and regional officials also promised to find housing for the victims. Volunteers set up shop at a grade school around the corner from the collapsed building, but they told Meduza that only three people had come by to seek housing assistance. Many more people came for the humanitarian supplies donated by Magnitogorsk residents, said Tatiana Ptitsina, the City Hall staffer leading the volunteer effort. By midday on January 1, several dozen people had come for food, warm clothing, diapers, and other necessities. There was a separate bin just for cigarettes.

Ptitsina said roughly 200 people — everyone from grade schoolers to senior citizens — volunteered in just a day. Some had worked with the city before, and others were simply responding to posts on social media, helping by distributing food to the homes in the apartment building were residents remained. Some of the volunteers, along with several off-shift rescuer workers, spent New Year’s Eve at the school. At midnight, the cafeteria chefs handed out clementines to everyone on hand.

Blankets, pillows, and other items donated to the apartment blast victims. January 1, 2019
Ilya Moskovets / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
Donated water
Maxim Salnikov

Maxim Salnikov says he came to the volunteer headquarters in the morning on December 31, as soon as he heard about the explosion. On his phone, he has photos of classrooms piled high with bags of donated clothes, bathroom products, chargers, and food. “Some people brought huge packages, and others came with small things,” he explains. “I saw an old woman bring in a single banana. She had one, and so she handed it over. Now there’s so much here that we could probably feed the whole city.”

Despite the fact that City Hall and the volunteers themselves stopped accepting humanitarian aid before New Year’s Day, Magnitogorsk locals continued bringing food and other items throughout January 1. The headquarters will stay open for another few days.

“It feels like a dream”

On the evening of December 31, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s crisis center published the names of the 45 missing people registered in the collapsed apartments. On January 1, some of these individuals reported that they were safe. One of these people was 26-year-old Kristina Nagaeva, who lived with her grandmother on the third floor of the apartment building — on the right side, which wasn’t destroyed completely. Nagaeva was with friends in Chelyabinsk for the holiday, and only her grandmother was in the apartment at the time of the explosion.

“My phone started going crazy around 9 a.m. [on January 1]. Friends were calling and writing me on every social network,” Nagaeva says. “I clicked on the first link and immediately tried calling my parents, but their line was ‘unavailable.’ I got through to my sister, and she said that our grandmother had been taken to the hospital. An hour later, my dad called and said that everything was okay: the emergency responders had pulled grandma out of the apartment onto the roof of the store [there were several small grocery stores attached to the first story of the apartment building]. In our section of the building, only a studio apartment had collapsed, and our apartment was nextdoor. The collapse basically ended at our apartment.” Nagaeva says the doctors found no serious injuries on her grandmother. “At 5:30 a.m. [on December 31], she called my mom and screamed wildly that the whole building was collapsing and exploding. Now she breaks down into tears, every minute.”

The blast knocked out every door jamb in Nagaeva’s apartment, along with several windows. She says her room is now “littered with bricks.” The only room that escaped the destruction was the one her grandmother occupied when the explosion happened. With the building’s staircase in tatters, the apartment is currently inaccessible. Nagaeva says no one in her family knows what to do next; they’re still waiting for the rubble to be cleared and for information about their neighbors who remain missing. Chelyabinsk Governor Boris Dubrovsky has announced that the state will pay 50,000 rubles ($718) to the victims of the explosion and twice as much to the families of those who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Dubrovsky also promised to help resettle those who lost their homes.

In the courtyard outside the collapsed apartment building, a memorial to the victims. January 1, 2019.
Ilya Moskovets / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

“It feels like a dream. And everything is a lie,” Nagaeva says. “Until I’ve seen my home with my own eyes, I won’t believe it.”

On January 2, Chelyabinsk declared a day of mourning, with the fate of nearly two dozen residents in the collapsed building still unknown.

Evgeny Berg reporting from Magnitogorsk

Translation by Kevin Rothrock