Shortly before Russian special forces stormed a theater here early Saturday, Alexander Karpov called a friend to say he was "safe and sound," although he was being forced by his Chechen captors to sit on a mine.
What happened to Karpov after that, no one seemed to know. Karpov was a familiar figure in the performing arts community here, a writer and bard who had translated the musical "Chicago" to Russian.
The day after the hostage standoff ended, dozens of Karpov's friends and family members fanned out across the city, trying to find him. They placed what they estimated to be thousands of phone calls to everyone they could think of, visited more than 70 hospitals and even put up a Web site hoping that someone might see it and recognize him.
But the crisis hotlines were jammed. Government officials at the makeshift information center set up for relatives said they had no information. Hospitals refused to take their calls; one receptionist hung up on them.
After hours of effort, they knew nothing more than when they started.
"So it happens we are helpless. It has been absolutely useless to try to get any information from official channels," said Pavel Zelentsov, a friend.
The captives were released from the horrors of the theater at daybreak Saturday, but are now in a sense being held a second time, by the government. Many are in hospitals but cannot be visited or even located by relatives.
More than 30 hours after the release of the hostages, there was still no master list reporting their status. Hundreds of families remained in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved ones, not knowing whether they were still alive.
At the half-dozen hospitals where the victims were taken, access was blocked, leaving relatives to wait outside in the freezing rain. Russian police with semiautomatic rifles turned away all who tried to enter. Visiting hours were canceled.
City Hospital No. 13, the one closest to the theater, was a mob scene after receiving more than 300 patients. Throughout the day, several hundred people crowded around the gates.
Every few hours, a tiny hospital official with white hair came out to call the names of the victims in the hospital and the handful who might be released later in the day. Few in the crowd could hear her.
Zelentsov, 30, a Web site designer, was there with his friends Yulia Kulbakova and Tanya Shekhtman, handing out fliers. The letter-sized leaflets -- not unlike those plastered around Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center -- had a mug shot, a brief physical description and several phone numbers to call if anyone spotted Karpov.
On Saturday, they heard from Karpov's wife, 25-year-old Sveta, who had been sitting next to him during the musical. She said she was at Hospital No. 13, even though she wasn't on the official list, but could not tell them anything about Karpov.
The day had begun at 4 a.m., when Karpov's friends parked themselves in front of phones and began asking for any information about Karpov. At 10 a.m., they heard there were people, not yet identified, at hospitals. They decided to go themselves, and drew up a list of every hospital in the city, including children's centers and psychiatric wards.
By midday, a family member or friend had managed to visit each of them.
Kulbakova, 24, went to Hospital No. 1. She made her way past the guards by telling them she was a doctor, which she is, and insisting she had urgent business. A physician treating some of the hostages greeted her and asked her to describe her friend Karpov. She did, but he told her, "He is not here." She then went to Hospital No. 23 before stopping at No. 13. Neither had any record of Karpov.
Shekhtman, a 28-year-old medical student who was working the phones, had an equally frustrating experience. At three places, she said, she was told that information about patients was "classified."
"Why couldn't they organize a hotline with a switchboard so people could get through?" she asked.
The family members of other victims, spilling out onto the muddy sidewalks and streets in front of Hospital No. 13, expressed glee and despair. Those who already had gotten phone calls from relatives inside the hospital were ecstatic, chatting about their loved ones' homecoming celebrations.
"I am the happiest woman in the world," said Lyubov Paramzina. She had heard from her 20-year-old son, Vitaly, in the morning, and he said he was doing just fine. He was coherent enough to ask for a toothbrush -- and some clothes and shoes to replace the ones taken by the terrorists.
When one man, 28-year-old Alev, peeked out from a fifth-floor window in the early afternoon with a tentative smile, a crowd of friends and family members in the street began to jump up and down and cheer.
Then there were the unlucky ones.
Varya Moreva, 16, walked around in front of the hospital showing pictures of her father and asking people if they had seen him. She had heard from her mother, Katya Sosedova, a violinist who was released in the afternoon, but her father, Igor Morev, was still missing.
"I asked my mother what happened, but she couldn't remember because she lost consciousness and woke up yesterday," Moreva said.
Finally, the family started searching morgues. They found Morev's name on a list. Even then, it took two more hours in the freezing rain before they were allowed inside to identify Morev, who was 39.
And after their long search, Alexander Karpov's friends also got bad news.
Throughout the afternoon and into the night, word began filtering out to more than 200 family members and friends, through cell-phone calls and e-mails, that he had been found. He was in a morgue.