‘Under ruins voices begged: Save us!’: Hope of finding 40 missing in Russia’s NYE gas blast dwindles
As weather in Magnitogorsk plunged to -22C, rescue workers continued to remove rubble under searchlights on New Year’s Eve, while officials admitted that chances of locating the dozens of missing victims grew slimmer by the hour.
Almost all of the residents at the ten-story apartment block at 164 Karl Marx Avenue were asleep at 6am, the morning before the biggest collective party on the Russian calendar. They were awoken by the ear-shattering sound of hundreds of glass panes breaking at once. Then the overpowering smell of gas, smoke from the rising fire, and finally the screams of those still alive.
The remains of seven people were pulled out of the debris early Tuesday and five of them have already been identified. Several dozen people remain unaccounted for as the search for potential survivors continues. Four rescue teams are working two-hour shifts around the clock, emergency services said.
“I instantly woke up my child and made a wet rag for her not to breathe in the smoke, then put warm clothes on her. I picked up some documents and everything that I had close to hand,” Olesya, who lived in a third-floor apartment, told RT’s video agency Ruptly.
“I thought we will go out through the porch, but as I opened my apartment door, I saw ruins. There was no porch at all anymore.”
The crowd of onlookers, who had rushed out, helped those well enough to walk climb down from the pile of debris that formed from the 35 flats that had been decimated.
Amid the panic, they also had a firmer grasp of the scale of the tragedy.
“It just collapsed like a house of cards,” said one witness.
A local newspaper reported that some residents jumped from their windows to escape the fumes.
“The fire was only on one floor of the building, but underneath the ruins, there were quiet voices, begging ‘Help us! Save us!’” another told Ruptly.
The first responders arrived. Then, the entire might of the 500,000-size city’s fire, medical and emergency departments. While some residents responded immediately to frantic calls from officials, or called the police to say they were safe, the phones of others were switched off. As the first survivors of burns and falls were delivered to hospital, and the deceased identified, it was clear that a substantial number of people were trapped, dead or alive.
Whatever had to be done now, could not be done in minutes or with only manpower and fire hoses. Specialist equipment and a go-slow approach were needed.
So began the multi-hour operation – as the nation watched live.
Instantly relatable to tens of millions of Russians, who grew up in identical mass builds, with their own gas stoves, this was not news that would be buried in the avalanche of festive TV shows and table preparations.
Plane after plane of emergency workers were dispatched from major cities, officials from the local governor, to the emergencies and health ministers arrived at the site. There are currently 1,300 people and over 200 pieces of equipment deployed.
Vladimir Putin himself ordered the presidential plane to leave his residence in Sochi, and traveled to Magnitogorsk. There he inspected the building, and spoke to the surviving families, and apologized to a boy that he did not have time to bring him a seasonal present. Seven children are still said to be missing.
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