The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Dnipro deaths mount, survivors plead for anti-missile defense

Firefighters rescue a survivor from the ruins of a residential apartment complex in Dnipro. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)
8 min

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Anger and grief consumed this central Ukrainian city Sunday as rescue workers continued to dig for survivors in the wreckage of an apartment block that collapsed when a Russian missile struck it the day before, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens of others, including children.

The brazen, midday attack on civilians in their homes has renewed urgent calls for Ukraine’s allies to immediately provide the country with upgraded air defenses that can help repel the missiles used in the attack, which officials here said their current system cannot detect. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said the death toll from the attack had risen to at least 30, added Sunday that another 30 residents were unaccounted for.

Hundreds of civilians gathered at the scene Sunday, rattled by the strike on Dnipro, which has been known as a relatively safe haven for the past nearly 11 months of war. Some pleaded for western countries to speed up the delivery of additional weapons and help protect Ukrainians from more unpredictable airstrikes.

Terrifying images of the aftermath of the strike on Dnipro

“How many other people have to die until the world will see us?” asked Aziza Nosenko, 30, a baker who was handing out sandwiches to volunteer rescuers digging through what remained of the apartment building on Sunday night.

“We’re full of anger and disappointment,” said her friend, Oleksandra Ratushna, 33.

The commander of Ukraine’s Air Force, Lt. Gen. Mykola Oleshchuk, said in a statement that Russia fired five long-range Kh-22 missiles — whose warheads each weigh more than 2,000 pounds — at Ukraine on Saturday. The missiles can fly as far as 370 miles and the one that hit the Dnipro building originated from Russia’s Kursk region, he said.

“Only antiaircraft missile systems, which in the future may be provided to Ukraine by Western partners … are capable of intercepting these air targets,” he said, naming the American Patriot system and the French SAMP/T system as examples.

Zelensky said Saturday that “no amount of persuasion or just passing the time will stop the terrorists who are methodically killing our people.”

“The whole world knows what can stop and how it’s possible to stop those who sow death,” he said.

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The United States announced last month that it would send its Patriot missile system to Ukraine as part of a $2 billion weapons package. It will include one Patriot battery, which is equipped with up to eight launchers. Each one can accommodate between four and 16 missiles. The announcement was a coup for Zelensky, who had long requested the system. But it is expected to take several months, in large part because it requires specific training of Ukrainian troops on how to use the specialized equipment.

The exposed kitchen was part of the home of Mykhailo Korenovskyi who was killed in the Dnipro apartment block strike on Jan. 14. (Video: Reuters)

The deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime under international law, which has not stopped the Russian armed forces from repeatedly attacking residential buildings, hospitals and schools from the air since the invasion of Ukraine in February and killing unarmed civilians on the ground in places like Bucha and other cities they have occupied. President Biden and other world leaders have vowed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for war crimes while Ukrainian prosecutors have been attempting to build their own cases, town by town. Thousands of specific allegations are under investigation.

Experts have warned that it could be years before anyone in a decision-making position is held to account, if they ever are.

Dnipro mayor said there's little hope of finding more survivors in rubble of an apartment block hit by a Russian missile on Jan. 15 which killed dozens. (Video: Reuters)

Strikes hit several other parts of the country on Saturday and explosions were heard in Kyiv before the air raid siren went off, which officials said was due to their existing air defense system’s inability to detect such attacks. Some of the missiles struck energy infrastructure, causing power outages.

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On Sunday morning, dozens of residents from the destroyed building lined up in front of a blue tent across the street, waiting to register for assistance.

An apocalyptic scene played out behind them, as firefighters and other emergency workers kept digging at the huge mound of rubble that the day before had been their homes — using both construction equipment and their hands to search for the missing.

One woman, who was trapped on the fourth floor of what was left of part of the building, was rescued after a worker dug a hole with his hands in the debris and then removed his helmet to fit his head through and identify her.

When Russia bombs a building full of people, this is the aftermath

There was so little space to pull her out that he had to carefully hand her over the edge of the building to another worker, her neck in a brace. Eventually they placed her on a stretcher and transported her to the hospital.

She was wearing only black pants and a black tank top after surviving the night in freezing temperatures but was conscious when they carried her to safety.

A Ukrainian Orthodox priest, Mikhail Stinyo, 39, held a service for the dead and missing at his nearby church on Sunday. “We are praying for the missing. We hope they will be found alive,” he said.

His church is prepared to host funerals free of charge for victims of the attack, which he described as “Russian terrorism.”

Rescue workers and civilians who saw him outside the ruined building Sunday turned to him for guidance and prayer, he said.

After a long night, “a lot of people are emotionally drained,” he said.

Arseniy Aivazian, 30, who heard the boom from the other side of town Saturday and came to the scene of the attack to volunteer Sunday, said he understood “that our air defense can’t shoot down these missiles.”

“We want the entire world to help,” he said. “We aren’t just fighting for our own freedom. We are fighting against terrorism.”

Oleh Nemyrovskyi, 31, whose parents live nearby, said Ukrainians “are waiting” for air defense that can protect them from such carnage.

“Maybe if we had new Patriots or something like that we’d have a chance to shoot [these missiles] down,” he said.

His three-year-old daughter, Sofia, sat on his shoulders in a yellow snowsuit and a unicorn hat, staring at the wreckage.

“She is saying a dinosaur knocked the building down,” he said. “She doesn’t understand the situation.”

Behind the building, volunteers continued handing out hot drinks and food to families displaced by the blast. Andriy Vanzha, 43, and his wife Svetlana, 42, were among those lined up to receive temporary mattresses. They live in the adjacent building and while their apartment was not damaged, police have banned them from entering the site, saying a support beam may be at risk of collapse.

They were at home during the strike, which left them shaken.

“I want the world to see how inhuman they are and let’s hope the world doesn’t abandon us,” Vanzha said. “We are very much hoping the Americans will give us more air defense.”

Two trained rescue workers, Natalya, 36, and Mykola, 53, who had been on the ground almost nonstop since the day before, stood behind the smoking ruin, waiting for their next instructions to clamber inside.

So far that day, they said, they had removed eight bodies from the wreckage. Unlike the day before, when they found many survivors, on Sunday, they were mainly digging out the dead.

Still, they were holding out hope that some people may have been in the basement and could be buried under the rubble but still be alive.

“The scariest part is not knowing,” Mykola said.

“It’s better if you know everyone died or know everyone is going to the hospital,” Natalya added.

For her, the mission had turned personal. Hours after she started digging people out of the collapsed building on Saturday, she learned that her 12-year-old son’s teacher was among those trapped inside.

Earlier that day, the teacher, her husband and their 16-year-old daughter had gone to the apartment complex to visit friends. Now they were all missing.

“I’m hoping maybe they went to the basement,” Natalya said. “His entire class is very worried.”

Were they prepared to be the ones to find the family?

“We have to turn off our emotions,” Mykola replied.

Natalya just shook her head.

Wojciech Grzedzinski in Dnipro contributed to this report.