BESLAN, Russia, Sept. 3 -- When "the storm" finally came, as the adults feared it would, the bullets started flying, the bombs were exploding and most of the children didn't know what to do.
Hundreds of hostages, sweaty, hungry and scared, had been packed into a school gymnasium for three days. They had been told they would die if soldiers tried to rescue them. And suddenly a full-scale war erupted around them -- the soldiers were coming.
A rescuer carries an injured boy away from the school. More than a thousand people had been held in the school gym for three days. Man of those who did not make it out of the gym when commandos stormed the building died.
(Eduard Kornienko -- Reuters)
Sosik Parastayev, who had just begun the fourth grade, noticed a man in uniform at the gym window, beckoning him to jump out. Sosik and his brother Atik, a year younger, scampered to the window along with their mother, Alyona Kokoyeva, who had been caught with them in the three-day siege of School No. 1. But as she tried to clear the broken glass from the window so the boys could leap out, Sosik said, a bullet sliced through the air and ripped into her body.
"I was nearly shot," too, Sosik said. "I jumped out the window. . . . Some soldiers grabbed me as soon as I jumped out. Everyone wet their pants."
His mother survived, but he lost contact with his younger brother.
The army commando attack on the captured school in this town in southern Russia dragged on for hours after the assault Friday. But for the vast majority of the children held prisoner by guerrillas, "the storm," as the survivors described the military onslaught, took place in a few chaotic and decisive minutes. Those who made it out of the gym right away were survivors. Those who did not mostly died.
Explosives that the guerrillas had wired around the gym blew up in a devastating cascade shortly after the first shots were fired, bringing the ceiling down on top of hundreds of school children who never had a chance.
Hours later, the demolished gym still smoldered, its carcass blackened and crumbled. By nightfall, most of the crushed bodies of students remained pinned under the rubble, while soldiers searched for lingering guerrillas and detonated the remaining booby trap bombs.
For those who survived, there were broken bones, charred skin, mangled flesh and memories that don't fade fast for young children. The words they spoke in the hours afterward seemed disconnected from their innocent faces, as they summoned forth images of mayhem and pandemonium.
"When they were storming, there was a lot of shooting," said Aslan Isayev, dirty and scratched and seemingly hardened to the violence, even though he was 9 years old. "Our soldiers came in and killed at least one of them, and maybe more," he said, referring to the guerrillas.
"I saw the bullets flying right at us from the second floor and the first floor," offered Arkady Zangiyev, also 9. "I fell on the ground. They were shooting. Then I started running. One guy from our class had a problem with his foot, and I helped him run. I managed to run to the back exit, and there was one of our policemen there. He grabbed a wounded boy and carried him."
The survivors were transported in ambulances and by volunteers in private cars to the Beslan hospital, which was so overcrowded it set up giant tents to handle overflow patients and left others to lie on stretchers outside on the grass. Arkady, wandered around the grass still dressed in his first-day-of-school gray pinstriped vest and pants, though he had long since discarded the shirt and jacket.
He and his classmates at School No. 1 had arrived on Wednesday morning for the opening of a new year, a festive day in the Russian calendar. Chechens and other guerrillas charged into the school at 9 a.m., armed with rocket launchers and explosive belts, showing a brutal willingness to use children to advance their the cause.
"The terrorists were hiding behind trees," Arkady remembered. "They jumped out and started shooting in the air. Some boys fell down in the street."