Two Fox journalists were killed in Ukraine. A widow still searches for answers.

Michelle Ross-Stanton has spent months investigating the March 14 attack on her husband, Pierre Zakrzewski, and his colleagues outside Kyiv.

Michelle Ross-Stanton at the London flat she used to share with her husband, Pierre Zakrzewski. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)
Michelle Ross-Stanton at the London flat she used to share with her husband, Pierre Zakrzewski. (Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post)

Pierre Zakrzewski had always come home. From Syria. From Libya. From Afghanistan.

As a cameraman and photographer who had spent most of his long career in conflict zones, he knew when to duck, when to run, the dicey scenarios to navigate, the trouble spots to avoid.

So when Michelle Ross-Stanton received a phone call from Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott on the evening of March 14 saying that her husband had been missing in Ukraine for five hours, she figured that he was hunkered down somewhere. Probably tending to the members of his team, as he’d always done.

“I decided not to tell his family,” she said, “because I was so sure he was going to show up. We all knew he had nine lives.”

But Ross-Stanton wasn’t waiting for the next message from Fox: A former journalist herself, she started making calls from her London home that night to friends, sources, distant connections — anyone who might know something about Pierre.

The next day she learned that Zakrzewski, 55, had been killed, along with a 24-year-old Ukrainian journalist on his team, Oleksandra Kuvshynova. They had been in the Kyiv suburb of Horenka on a reporting trip when their vehicle was hit by an explosion. The third member of their reporting team, Benjamin Hall, then 39, was alive but suffering grave injuries that would cost him a foot, an eye and part of his leg. Two Ukrainian soldiers they were traveling with were killed as well, The Washington Post has learned.

Seven months later, Ross-Stanton hasn’t stopped working the phones.

For war correspondents, the risk of death has long been accepted as part of the job. Already, 15 journalists have been killed in Ukraine since the war began in February, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. But as of November, Zakrzewski and Kuvshynova remain the only journalists working for a U.S. television network who have died in this conflict.

Ross-Stanton remains on a quest to understand the murky circumstances of her husband’s death. Though she has pieced together some of the story of how his team ventured out to the front lines of the fighting at a particularly dangerous time, she is still trying to determine whether anyone — beyond the military force that launched the attack — is responsible for what happened, or for the chaotic aftermath.

One particular detail continues to trouble her: The team of security consultants hired by Fox to work with its journalists in Ukraine was not traveling with her husband and his team when they were attacked.

Her frustration with the dearth of information is shared by the parents of Kuvshynova, a young arts maven and aspiring journalist who launched into conflict-zone reporting when her country was invaded. They said no one from Fox called to tell them that their daughter had been attacked, and they have not been given any more information in the months that followed about how she died. They first became aware of the incident after reading a social media post from a Ukrainian government official. “We were not kept in the loop at all. The communication was not sufficient,” said her father, Andrey Kuvshynov. “We learned about it from the internet.”

A Fox News spokesperson said that senior leadership was in touch with both families and worked with a translator to communicate with Kuvshynova’s parents.

In a statement, the spokesperson added that Fox was completely devastated by their deaths. “Their extraordinary dedication to telling the stories of those impacted by the war in Ukraine placed a critical spotlight on the atrocities unfolding there daily — we are forever grateful for their commitment to journalism and their ultimate sacrifice. We did everything humanly possible in the aftermath of this unprecedented tragedy amid the chaos of a war zone.”

While she declined to discuss the details, Ross-Stanton said she is still in talks with Fox over a settlement that would provide compensation for Zakrzewski’s death. Meanwhile, with a notebook and calendar at her side, she has been constructing a chronology of her husband’s final days and hours.

“I want the truth and I want the whole truth and I want to know exactly what happened,” Ross-Stanton said in the first interview she has given about her husband’s death. “It’s not that I don’t trust Fox to give me the right answers, but I don’t trust anybody to give me the answers that I want to hear.”

Zakrzewski arrived in Ukraine in late January along with a crew of Fox News colleagues. After checking into the InterContinental Kyiv hotel — a popular base camp for Western journalists — they got to work reporting on the growing threats of a Russian invasion.

A relentlessly upbeat presence with a shaggy push-broom mustache, Zakrzewski came to this assignment with a higher status than most camera operators. A reputation for competence and command built over his decades of field experience had also positioned him to take on some of the traditional responsibilities of a producer. From his home base of London, he was frequently dispatched to danger zones as well as for less perilous news stories across Europe, such as British royal functions — which his wife says he didn’t particularly enjoy covering. Even their vacations were globe-trotting adventures. Family videos show Zakrzewski — a French-Irish dual citizen called “The Mad Irishman” by some friends — zooming around on his motorcycle, chatting up the locals.

“He never unpacked,” Ross-Stanton said. “I learned not to buy food for more than two days at a time. For him, it was a lifestyle choice.”

In their first weeks, the Fox News team produced regular updates on the Russian threat, usually through the lens of Zakrzewski’s camera. Many were broadcast live from the hotel’s rooftop, though correspondents also went to the streets of Kyiv and other cities, talking to residents about the growing threats of war. In late January, Fox reported on a group of civilians training for combat; in February, it captured scenes of Ukrainian soldiers conducting live-fire training outside of Chernobyl and, later, teenagers lobbing grenades to prepare for guerrilla combat.

Most of the Fox staff had worked together before. But they had one new member of the team: Oleksandra Kuvshynova, a festival organizer and publicist who viewed the chance to work with Fox as a great opportunity to break into journalism. Starting in mid-January, she began helping the Fox crew coordinate and translate interviews and find their way around the region. She bonded with her new colleagues over their shared love of coffee and her passion for music.

“We were very proud of her and knew it was important work to do when the war started,” her father said, speaking for himself and her mother, Iryna Mamaysur. When her parents fretted about her safety, “she tried to calm us down and told us that Fox News was reliable, and they had all security measures in place.”

In recent years, Fox News has cemented its ratings dominance with a focus on hot-button conservative punditry, and its newsgathering presence in Ukraine was smaller than some of its competitors’ — about 20 people during the conflict’s early weeks, while CNN had 75 at the beginning of the invasion.

But “Fox threw everything at Ukraine,” Ross-Stanton said. “They did throw a lot of resources at it. Everybody was over there.”

The Kyiv bureau’s first on-camera brush with danger occurred on Feb. 19, when correspondent Trey Yingst traveled to Ukraine’s eastern border and broadcast footage of troops preparing for the invasion. As Yingst interviewed the country’s interior minister, Russian-backed separatists began artillery strikes. The correspondent made a run for it on live television. As Zakrzewski’s jostling camera tried to keep up, Yingst could be heard yelling, “Where’s Pierre? Where’s Pierre?”

The Post examined the lead-up to the Ukraine war. Here’s what we learned.

On Feb. 24, Russia began its assault on Ukraine. Hall, who primarily covered the State Department from Washington, moved from the relative safety of the western city of Lviv to join the Kyiv staff. On March 11, the British-born correspondent reported on air that Russian troops were poised to invade the capital. Fox aired a segment filmed at a children’s hospital in Kyiv — the voices of young patients raised in song, the half-covered body of a dead boy lying on the floor. Air raid sirens could be heard in the distance.

“Thanks, Benji,” anchor John Roberts said at the conclusion of the report. “Stay safe.”

As the Russians advanced across Ukraine that month, journalists became captivated by one evacuation route: the bridge across the Irpin River that separated Kyiv from the vulnerable western suburb of Irpin. Ukrainian forces had destroyed the bridge to keep Russian tanks from rolling into the capital from the west, but now panicked suburbanites were struggling across wooden planks laid on top of the water to escape the shelling — a dramatic scene highlighted in many news stories.

Then, on March 13, an American documentary filmmaker was shot and killed while passing through a military checkpoint on the western side of the river. Brent Renaud, 50, had been working on a project about war refugees for Time Studios. Zakrzewski witnessed the shooting from some distance away, according to his wife.

Renaud’s death shocked the Kyiv-based press corps. It also jumbled their logistics: The mayor of Irpin called for journalists to stay away, and a main highway was closed off, forcing those who wanted to travel to the front to take a more indirect route.

The next day, March 14, Zakrzewski headed back into the western suburbs with Hall and Kuvshynova.

From the moment she learned her husband was missing, Ross-Stanton went her own way.

That night, she began reaching out to her husband’s colleagues, to an array of contacts from her own career as a videographer for the BBC and advocacy organizations. “Every single journalist that I knew on the ground, I contacted them to say, ‘Help, find my husband.’ ”

Later, after she got the call that Zakrzewski was dead, Ross-Stanton insisted on flying to Krakow, Poland, then traveling to the Ukrainian border to retrieve his body. Fox News paid for the private plane and later for the funeral in Ireland, but she rebuffed suggestions that its executives accompany her or make the trip for her.

“I was very rude to the CEO of Fox News,” she said, adding that she later apologized. “I said, ‘No, I’m going. He’s my husband, and I’m going to get him.’ … I was prepared to go to Kyiv if I had to and drag him out of the morgue if I had to.”

And then she set out to learn exactly how her husband died.

Hall, the lone survivor of the attack, is still recovering from devastating injuries. He has not publicly described what happened, and Fox News did not make him available for an interview.

But from conversations with her husband’s co-workers and other sources with firsthand knowledge, Ross-Stanton has re-created most of his final day.

She believes Zakrzewski, Hall and Kuvshynova left Kyiv around midday with the plan of filming soldiers digging trenches to mount a defense of the capital. When military officials waved them away, they detoured to a village that had recently been shelled. The team probably ended up in the village of Horenka by way of a road that looped the long way around the off-limits town of Irpin.

The Fox News team did not travel alone. Two soldiers from a Ukrainian militia, the Azov Battalion, gave them a ride from a meeting point in the western suburbs, said the group’s co-founder and top commander, Col. Andriy Biletsky. The group was formed in 2014, and its far-right views made its members controversial figures early in the war, though they would later be hailed as heroes for their long, doomed defense of Mariupol.

Zakrzewski felt confident of their safety, his wife says, because a team of New York Times journalists had made the same trip with the same soldiers one day earlier. But “there was a lot of shelling,” said Andriy Dubchak, a Ukrainian reporter who worked with the Times on that assignment. “No one knew where the front line was. It was really unpredictable.”

The letters left behind by demoralized Russian soldiers as they fled

Sviatoslav Yurash, a close friend of Kuvshynova who serves in the Ukrainian parliament, said military investigators told him that they believe the Fox crew was filming when they spotted Russian forces and tried to find a safer location — only to end up in the path of artillery fire, possibly launched from the nearby Russian-controlled town of Hostomel. From her own reporting, Ross-Stanton believes the assault happened when they were stopped at a checkpoint instead.

The barrage was intense — probably about 40 rockets, according to Biletsky, the Azov commander. When Yurash visited the scene later with Kuvshynova’s father, they found utter devastation, with houses and vehicles decimated by shelling.

Still, the shelling was “very imprecise,” Biletsky said: That the Fox team’s vehicle happened to be where the rockets landed was “fantastically poor luck.”

According to video from the scene viewed by Ross-Stanton, the first shell landed about 20 feet in front of their vehicle. She says she could hear her husband shouting “Reverse! Reverse!” and “Get out!” Kuvshynova was trapped in the vehicle, Ross-Stanton learned from two people with close knowledge of the incident, while Hall and Zakrzewski escaped or were thrown from the vehicle. She believes that a shell sprayed the shrapnel that pierced her husband’s femoral artery just below his flak jacket. Both Azov soldiers were killed, Biletsky said.

Back in Kyiv, though, all anyone knew that afternoon was that the Fox team was missing.

As word began to spread, security consultants employed by Western media organizations huddled at the InterContinental Kyiv, conferring in hushed tones about how they could help. Kuvshynova’s parents — who only knew she had headed out on a reporting trip that day — grew concerned when she stopped responding to messages.

Dubchak, the Ukrainian stringer for the New York Times, spent hours that evening accompanying two security consultants — one with the Times, the other with Fox — on a search of area hospitals. They eventually located Hall in one hospital, where he had been transported by soldiers who found him at the blast scene. Jennifer Griffin, Fox’s national security correspondent who had been assisting the search from Washington, scrambled to help coordinate Hall’s evacuation via ambulance to the Polish border, then to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

But Zakrzewski and Kuvshynova remained missing. With nightfall and continued shelling in the area, Dubchak advised them to suspend the search until the morning.

Back in the United States that same day, Fox News anchor John Roberts delivered the news that Hall had been injured, giving few details and saying nothing about his colleagues.

The following day, roughly 20 hours after Zakrzewski was known to be missing, the two security consultants working for Fox found his body in a morgue.

There was an immediate outpouring of grief when Fox News reported the death of the widely beloved cameraman. As word began to circulate in Kyiv that Kuvshynova also had died, some journalists chided Fox on Twitter for not promptly reporting this news.

In fact, the network was waiting out of deference to her family, who had known so little about the work she was doing, or the danger it involved, that they couldn’t comprehend why they were asked — the day after the attack — to come to the InterContinental Kyiv to collect her belongings. When they were not given an explanation for the trip, they decided not to go. Yurash, who had once worked as a local producer for Fox, tried to convince them that she had been killed. But it wasn’t until yet another day passed, her father said, that a coroner at a local morgue confirmed her death for them.

Eventually, Ross-Stanton would come to understand one reason for both the confusion of that day and the shortage of information she could obtain: Except for their militia escorts, the Fox News crew was alone out there in Horenka.

“Why did they end up there?” asked Kuvshynova’s father in an anguished interview he gave to Insider.com a month after her death.

Now, Kuvshynov says: “It was the wrong decision to send them on that specific assignment and to that location, because they knew it was extremely dangerous.”

Some journalists — including a few Fox colleagues — felt the same way initially, noting the death of Renaud in the area a day earlier.

But ultimately, most of the foreign correspondents interviewed by The Post — a close-knit community still grappling with the deaths of their friends — decided that the Fox News team had simply gone where the story was that day. The Post spoke with more than 10 correspondents from a variety of news organizations; many said that they would have taken the same trip and that the Fox crew had merely accepted the standard degree of reasonable risk that comes with their line of work. Ross-Stanton agrees: “They didn’t consider it a risky mission,” she said.

“He was a man with great bravery, but I’ve definitely been with him when he said, ‘Well, I’m not doing that one.’”
— Stuart Ramsay

Many journalists expressed confidence in Zakrzewski’s instincts and caution, his habit of conducting what his wife called “dynamic risk assessments” with every assignment.

“He was a man with great bravery, but I’ve definitely been with him when he said, ‘Well, I’m not doing that one,’ ” said Stuart Ramsay of Britain’s Sky News, a friend of many years.

Several Kyiv-based correspondents said Renaud’s death factored into their own decision-making but did not keep them from leaving their hotels. “Our management back at home in London, they don’t say, ‘You’re not going out today because this has happened,’ ” said Jeremy Bowen, a veteran BBC correspondent.

A representative for Fox News said network officials discussed safety and caution with its team in Kyiv every day. Renaud’s death “was part of that discussion, and we were always urging caution,” the person said.

The reality of television journalism is that reporters need visuals to tell a story — and venturing into the world to collect footage produces a more compelling package than a stand-up broadcast from a hotel rooftop in Kyiv. “Your networks are always happy to take footage, until something goes wrong,” said a former Fox News foreign correspondent, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships.

Ukrainians speak of sorrow, rape and suspicion under Russian occupation

But some questioned whether the Fox team should have traveled with the militia.

“There is no security role that allows you to travel with soldiers in the front line under fire,” said Anton Skyba, a veteran local producer in Ukraine who now works for Canada’s Globe and Mail.

“If you are with the Ukrainian military anywhere, you are at the risk of being hit by shell fire, because it’s an artillery war,” said Richard Spencer, a correspondent for the Times of London, who had attempted a trip to Horenka a few days before the Fox team.

But it’s not unusual for media organizations to “embed” with a military unit in an active war zone. Several correspondents said it was often the only way for journalists to cover the Ukrainian front lines.

Dubchak didn’t think twice about embedding with the Azov soldiers the day before the Fox team went out. “They know the locations. They know the area,” he said. “And they have a gun to protect us if something happens.”

In the months since her husband’s death, Ross-Stanton’s investigation has focused heavily on the question of whom his team did not travel with in its final hour — anyone from the team of security consultants hired by Fox to provide logistical support and guidance.

In conflict zones, security consultants often serve as battlefield medics and extraction experts, marshaling resources to evacuate injured journalists. Most major news organizations operating in Ukraine have hired in-house security consultants or work with contractors.

Fox News has long contracted a security firm called Separ International, a small company that conducts hostile-environment-awareness training for a variety of media organizations.

“Standard operating procedure is for security to go with them. Why didn’t they?”
— Michelle Ross-Stanton

Fox acknowledged in a statement to Insider.com in the spring that the journalists separated from the security team: “Our security team knew exactly where they were. We knew where we dropped them off, where they were going, and where they ended up.”

Ross-Stanton was baffled by this account — noting that team was missing for several hours. “They’ve said that they knew exactly where they were all of the time, and that’s not true,” she countered.

“Standard operating procedure is for security to go with them,” she said. “Why didn’t they?”

From her sources, she learned that the consultants stayed behind after dropping them off with the soldiers because there wasn’t enough room in the Azov vehicle. She argues, though, that in situations like that, security consultants typically travel behind in a separate vehicle — a position from which they might have been able to help after the Fox car was struck.

“What runs through my head every single night is: What if?” she said. “If [the consultants] had been there, would they have been able to save Pierre? Because all he needed was pressure on his wound to stop the bleeding. That’s all he needed.”

Reached by phone, Separ International chief executive Stephen Smith said he couldn’t discuss the attack because of the sensitivity of the matter and out of respect to the families of those killed. A Fox News spokesperson declined to comment on Separ’s actions on the day of the attack.

But the journalist who took the same trip a day earlier offers a possible explanation:

When Dubchak and his Times colleagues approached a checkpoint near Horenka with their Azov escorts, the guards would allow only one of their two cars to pass, citing safety concerns. Two vehicles, they explained, would offer the Russians a bigger target than one.

Assuming the Fox team faced the same obstacle, the decision whether to travel on without security — on what was supposed to be a quick trip, to a destination less than a mile from where their security detail would reunite with them — would have probably been made between the journalists and the Separ team.

“I would love to know who made that decision for them not to go,” Ross-Stanton said. “In some ways I sort of hope it was Pierre that told them not to come because it was too dangerous, because then I’m not going to blame anybody for his death.”

Every war correspondent finds a way to come to terms with the risks. Some of Zakrzewski’s friends are now reevaluating them.

“You tell yourself that you will be okay because you are very cautious,” said Clarissa Ward, a longtime foreign correspondent now with CNN. “But the reality is that there is an element of luck and randomness to all of it, and Pierre’s death really rammed that home for me.”

Sky News’s Ramsay — who survived an explosion in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017 and was shot in the lower back near Kyiv in late February — teared up as he recalled the emotional last hug he shared with Zakrzewski before he left Ukraine to recover from his injuries: “My last words to him were, ‘Please take care. It’s really dangerous.’ ”

Now, Ramsay said, he finds himself wondering: “Is it possible to do this job without it being incredibly dangerous? If it’s not incredibly dangerous, you’re probably not doing it.”

“Pierre was unlucky,” said Nabih Bulos, a Los Angeles Times correspondent who has reported extensively on Ukraine. “They could say the same thing about me at some point.”

On a recent afternoon, Ross-Stanton sat in the living room of the small flat she shared with her husband in southeast London, a place filled with relics of overseas assignments: his passports, a gas mask, his famously large collection of fanny packs.

There were condolence letters from President Biden and Mick Jagger, and a note she had once scrawled for him in marker on the back of an envelope: “Put yourself first. It’s only TV — not life and death!”

Zakrzewski “would have loved to have been a father,” his wife says, but she worried about raising a child while he was off working in dangerous places.

“Our plan was for Pierre to retire early, and we were going to go off on our boat and have a dog, a water dog,” she said. “We just had so many plans.”

Now the old Dutch barge that he spent endless hours repairing — his “expensive mistress,” Ross-Stanton jokes — remains docked in western London, its hull featuring a new portrait of Zakrzewski and his family’s new mantra: #BeMoreLikePierre.

Ross-Stanton doesn’t like being alone in the flat anymore. She’s thinking about moving.

In an appearance at a Fox News staff meeting in September, Hall spoke up for the work that had cost his team so much. “When we think back to both Pierre and [Oleksandra], we have to remember what we can learn from them,” he said. “That what we do, that this job is so important that we have to keep doing it. We have to keep doing it in their names.”

In fact, the fallout from their deaths has been bitter. Lawyers for Kuvshynova’s parents said they sent questions for Fox to ask Hall about her work assignment and the circumstances of the attack — details they sought to help prosecute Russia for a war crime. “They were not helpful at all,” the lawyer, Olga Grygorovska, told The Post. “After we had a chat with two of their lawyers, they simply ignored our requests.”

Ross-Stanton said pointedly of her still-unresolved settlement talks with Fox: “Pierre thought that I would be taken care of if anything happened to him,” adding that he joined the network as a full-time staffer to guarantee a “level of protection” for her.

Yet she agreed with Hall that conflict-zone reporting is worth the risks.

“Pierre wanted to tell the truth,” she said. “He wanted to be the voice for people who didn’t have a voice. … This was exactly what he wanted to be doing.”

She continued: “I get angry when people say they don’t watch the news because it’s too depressing. And I explain that people risk their lives to bring you that news so that you know what’s going on in the world, and you should be watching it.”

She is still making calls, tracking down sources, trying to find answers. She has taken a role as a key witness in a war-crimes tribunal investigation launched by France in March and hopes the findings will yield new details — though, she said, “I don’t know if we will ever actually find out the truth.” She is also raising money for medical aid to Ukraine and plans to establish awards through the Frontline Club, a professional organization supporting freelance journalists, to honor both her husband and Kuvshynova.

“I am dedicating myself to keeping his legacy alive,” she said. “That’s my job. That’s what’s keeping me going.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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