Fire department, eight hours before departure
There is silence in the firefightersʼ station. Two cars are parked in the garage, two more are parked outside. One team is helping to put out a forest fire that started after shelling near Mykolaiv, another is busy putting out a fuel oil spill, which also happened due to an explosion. In the corner, one can hear a noise — a cleaning mechanism for drinking water, which was given to the firefighters by volunteers, works. Water samples from it were sent to the laboratory. Studies have shown that it can be drunk. Fireman Serhiy walks with us around the depot: heʼs tall, fair-haired. He looks not more than 30 years old.
"In the first weeks after the invasion began, there was no water in the city at all," says the rescuer. “We used to take it from the Dnipro river, thereʼs the pipe from Kherson. The Russians destroyed it. How did we go to the fire? Well, we collected water from reservoirs, from the river. And then the city water supply system was connected to the South Buh river. Now we take water from the well again. You canʼt drink it — it is salty and yellowish in color. But, at least, you can wash the dishes, take a shower. Well, and refuel cars.
The fire trucks are returning to the station. A huge gate opens, the teams slowly drive inside. Men in uniform jump down onto the concrete floor. Tired, very sweaty, sometimes with black lines on the face. They take off their work clothes right there, near the cars, and in a couple of minutes go to the dining room for lunch.
"Damn grease," says one of the firemen shortly. “It turned out that there were still some sleepers for the railway. These wooden ones which are placed under the rails. They were all in grease. They burn well. We got sick and tired while extinguishing the fire.
While the rescuers are having lunch, we go outside. The war did not bypass the fire station: it seems that almost none of the buildingʼs windows survived. The asphalt around is covered with white spots. A broken concrete fence is in twenty meters from the entrance to the station. All this is the result of one of the night shellings. Serhiy continues:
“A missile flew to us a few days ago. In the building nearby. The explosion happened closer to the morning. Half of the house near which the missile exploded was demolished. Debris was falling all around. These white traces are the result,” the rescuer points to a white spot on the asphalt, as if made by chalk. “Bricks broke the glass in the station building. In the backyard not a single window left intact. Our private cars parked there were also damaged. Although itʼs very strange: one car stands without windows and with holes in it, and the other is intact. Only with dust.”
Serhiy leads us to the backyard. Fragments of bricks and glass have already been removed after the shelling. The only thing that reminds us of the Russian missile here is the broken cars and empty window panes. We enter a small gazebo overgrown with grapes. Five rescuers are already sitting there. They smoke. We meet the fireman who was dealing with the burning fuel oil. Heʼs short, muscular, with a serious look. He is 32 years old and has been working as a rescuer since 2009.
"And on February 24, it was my shift," he says. “As I was driving to work, I did not hear the explosions. I went to the store nearby, the saleswoman said that the Russians were shooting. I didnʼt believe it. When we arrived at the fire station, we were told that the [occupierʼs] air force had bombed the airfield. But on that day we had no tasks. The Russians began to bombard the city on February 26 or 27. We saw a lot during this time: we went to the ruins of houses, extinguished fires, took people out of the basements.”
Stas, another firefighter, joins the conversation. Before the Russian invasion, he was a fire inspector, and now he is the chief of the fire watch. He says that now it is more difficult to work. Because when it constantly explodes, you sit in the basement, in relative safety. And now at any moment a missile may arrive. Or shells from MLRS. The air alarm does not warn about them.
“We are talking now with you, but it can fly in at any time and at any moment. And you donʼt know about this. This is the most frightening,” says Stas.
The firefighters look at the clock and joke that there are still a few hours before the shelling, so itʼs possible to relax a little and drink coffee. Or even to sleep. Because the previous night was very noisy, so the shift on duty was constantly leaving for a call.
"You came for nothing," laughs Stas. “The Russians bombed like hell yesterday, so maybe today it will be calmer. But just in case, go down to the basement for the night. We also sit there at night, if there are no tasks.”
Six hours before the call, the fire station
We go into the small room of the dispatcher. A blond smiling girl is sitting at a table with a pile of paper magazines. Sheʼs Iryna. At the beginning of the full-scale war, she went to Lviv for evacuation with her family, but in a month she returned to work. She says that she cannot leave her colleagues. It was also uncomfortable for her in Lviv — the streets were too narrow. “On one side, there are cars on the sidewalks, on the other side there are announcements that the facade may collapse. I still donʼt understand how to walk around Lviv,” Iryna laughs.
The shift will last until two in the morning today. If nothing extraordinary happens, Iryna will be able to go to sleep, the next fire dispatcher will take her place, but in the event of a severe fire, he will go to the call to help colleagues. In this case, the girl will have to return to the table with magazines. Stas is standing on the other side of the window, near the counter. He is talking to a local woman who came to complain about the shelling of the Russians. Fragments of a conversation can be heard through the open window. “I donʼt know what [kind of missile] it was. The windows were broken. There is a hole in the yard. I do not understand whether there is a projectile there or there is not. And itʼs scary to go there. Could you please check?” says the lady, holding the little dog to her chest. It turns its head around but sits quietly.
“I would be happy, but I canʼt. I canʼt even leave the fire station — what if something will happen suddenly? All I can say is that itʼs unlikely to be a projectile,” says Stas quietly and calmly. “No cluster bombs were dropped in our area tonight. Maybe itʼs a building fragment that flew into your yard and made a hole. Well, because it turned potential energy into kinetic energy. And when it hit the ground, a hole was formed. And the windows were broken by an explosive wave. Donʼt worry, I will now pass the information on to the sappers, they will come and check everything.”
“Thank you, thank you. I also thought that it could not be a projectile. During these five months, I also learned a little to distinguish what is flying there. Where is the missile, where is the projectile, where is the rocket artillery. But it is so scary, very scary! Today, I sat in the basement with my two dogs and two cats for half a day, only recently got out, started doing something around the house,” the woman begins to laugh nervously.
She is shaking. It seems that sheʼs on the brink of bursting into tears. Stas gently takes her by the arm, and in a few seconds, she calms down. She says goodbye to the rescuer and slowly leaves.
“Locals who live near the station sometimes come to us. They ask to see what has flown into their houses. And we cannot leave the territory of the station, even if it is two or three houses away from us. Like in the case of this woman. We pass all the information to the sappers, and then they work. Damn Russians,” Stas squeezes the last phrase through his teeth.
The night is falling, We take things down to the basement. At the end of the stairs, there is a huge metal door, as if drawn from the instructions for the basics of life safety, which told about the action plan in case of a nuclear explosion. In the far room, lined with chairs and covered with blankets and mattresses, the same door, only smaller, is an emergency exit. A lamp burns in the center of the next room, directly above an old wooden table on which dominoes are scattered. On the walls, there are faded and yellowed posters about civil defense. In the corner, there is a device for forced ventilation of the premises. The siren begins to wail. Firefighters fill the room in a minute. A third of them immediately lay down on the couches, another four go to play dominoes, and some sit under the walls and flip through news feeds.
“In theory, this basement should withstand a nuclear attack. But I really donʼt want to check this. Yes, I have a lot of doubts that it was strengthened qualitatively. I suspect that we have ordinary concrete ceilings above our heads,” jokes Stas.
Dominos rattle on the wood, powerful snoring can be heard from the next room. Iryna perched on the stairs by the door — she is the one preparing the report for the day for her management. The lamp glows dimly.
"Damn, canʼt these damned missiles be shot down with an anti-aircraft system? By HIMARS or some means of air defense. Yesterday, the city was bombarded with those cluster shells,” is heard from a dark corner of the room. Two firemen are napping there. From time to time, they wake up and join the conversation. “Do you know another type of them? Cylindrical ones, with white ribbons. There are a lot of them, we just canʼt find all. Children play with them. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a picture: a mother is walking with a child, the kid is holding a projectile by this ribbon and spinning it in the air. Colleagues reacted quickly: they ran up, snatched it from the childʼs hands, and threw it aside. And it exploded. Good thing no one was hurt.”
"And it also happens that local alcoholics take whatʼs left of the shells as scrap metal," says another firefighter. “Once it happened that we were walking with my friends and saw a man pulling the warhead of the projectile on himself. It weighs nearly 50 kg. We ask him what itʼs all about, and he calmly answers that he is going to hand over the metal, 1,800 hryvnias are paid for this. And he says so naively: ʼDo you want me to show you another one? I had two such things in my yard.ʼ We, of course, told him whatʼs what and took away the shells. But it is scary to imagine how many people can blow up on them.”
Meanwhile, Stas receives a message on his phone. He immediately frowns, throws his dominoes on the table, goes out into the corridor, and calls to Iryna to gather the whole team in the basement and close the bunker behind them. Then he checks the rooms to see who is already here. After listing the team, he returns to his place at the table.
"Damn, I want to play American football like I used to," Stas shows photos from several years ago, where he is in uniform on the football field. “We traveled around the country, played sports, played in championships. Without all this nonsense that is happening now. Damn Russians!” the fireman is angry.
Then he explains why his mood has changed. He says that the rescuers have friends who stayed in the occupied Kherson oblast. A few minutes ago, a message was sent: they saw how seven Smerch missile carriers were leaving from one of the cities in the direction of Kherson. The maximum range of these MLRS is 120 km. And they can shoot cluster bombs: several hundred shells from one rocket. One of the rescuers covers his head with his hands and begins to repeat: "What will happen to the city? If yesterday there were two Smerch attacks, and today there are seven..."
“Today, no one is going anywhere, we will sit in the basement until morning. I donʼt want to drive under cluster bombardment. Do you remember how it was a couple of weeks ago? We just went to eliminate the fire — and ʼfireworksʼ started in the sky. To drive in the dark like that is pure suicide,” Stas is nervous.
“But wait, donʼt close the door. Letʼs see what happens today,” Serhiy tells him calmly.
In the news, there is a report that Ukrainian artillery hit warehouses with ammunition in Skadovsk. The basement welcomes this news with joyful shouts and cautious optimism: maybe the city will not be shelled today?
Departure, the basement of the fire station
The air alert continues until 1 AM. As soon as the sirens calm down, the rescuers carefully leave the basement. Several men are smoking while looking at the horizon. From time to time, white flashes are seen there — itʼs artillery fire. However, itʼs quite far away: the sounds of explosions cannot be heard. “It is somewhere on the outskirts, closer to Kherson. Itʼs like that almost every night there. But who is shooting, ours or the Russians, isnʼt clear. I hope itʼs ours,” says Stas.
We count flashes for a few more minutes — there are definitely more than ten of them. Suddenly, an orange torch flies into the sky. Another one followed him. And more. The latter does not fly in a straight line, and hits something in the sky. The first sounds of explosions are coming. “Run to the basement! This is air defense! Missiles fly! Everyone to the basement!” Stas shouts.
In a few seconds, we are back in the bomb shelter. Shell bursts can be heard from the street: very loud, as if someone is tearing thick iron sheets of metal. To this accompaniment, others rush towards us from the street: the first is Iryna, with a bundle of journals and a blanket, followed by several men with pillows.
"It exploded right somewhere behind my back, itʼs definitely nearby," Iryna says loudly.
“It seems that some bastard is watching when the air alert ends and is launching missiles at us! Assholes!” shouts one of the firefighters.
"Well, itʼs enough for them to install the Alarm app, it doesnʼt have to be someone in Mykolaiv," says Stas prudently. “And it isnʼt clear that it flew nearby. It could be just an echo.”
There is a commotion in the room. The rescuers tell each other how they ran to the basement. They share their impressions about what rockets could have landed in the city. In a moment, everything calms down: Irynaʼs phone is buzzing. “Yes. Yes. Where is it burning? I understood,” she says very quietly.
For a few seconds, she silently looks at Stas, he looks at her. There is a lingering silence in the basement. “What the hell, letʼs go? Why are we sitting?” Stas asks others.
The rescuers silently get up and run to the cars. We are behind them. While we are starting our car, the first fire truck leaves the station. Itʼs quiet and without sirens, only blue beacons illuminating the dark streets. A few blocks from the place of the explosion, we can already see the flames above the roofs of the houses. We pass the police checkpoint blocking the streets, and after a few turns we find ourselves in front of the former daycare hospital of the venereological dispensary. The fire is consuming the building from the inside, the flames are breaking through the roof. We stop and quickly jump out of the cars. Hot ash immediately begins to be felt on the skin. Everything around is shrouded in smoke and fine dust.
“Get me water, run!” Stas shouts and runs to the building.
Along the way, he tears off a section of a metal fence with his bare hands as if it was made of cheap plastic. His colleagues are running after the rescuer — with the first fire hose. They run around a huge hole, it seems three or four meters deep and ten meters wide, and begin to put out the fire. Cracking wood and melted glass in the building, under the drops of cold water on the ground, sharp fragments of metal hiss — these, as the firemen assume, may be the remains of an S-300 missile. Itʼs 2 AM. After a few minutes, other cars arrive: first, several firemen, followed by bomb disposal experts and an ambulance. The police stand on both sides of the street.
Near the building, there are two civilians: a girl and a man. The last one is just in underwear. They look at the building in fascination — they were inside when the missile exploded, and they cannot explain what happened and how they were not affected.
“I... Iʼm sorry... I still donʼt understand how it happened... We were inside. There is a humanitarian warehouse. There are medicines. There are strollers. There are crutches. Diapers. Documents. We were in the building. It exploded. I donʼt know where my clothes are," says the man, confused. The girl quietly hugs him.
In the meantime, the firemen are deployed in full force: they throw ladders at the wall, from behind which flames jump out from time to time. Underfoot there are webs of fire hoses. Behind the hospital, another group is also fighting the fire: while cars are pumping water, men have grabbed fire extinguishers and are trying to knock down the flames. “There are documents, guys! Documents! A green folder! Can someone come inside with me?!” shouts a man who was in his underwear just a few minutes ago. They found some womenʼs clothes for him, and he is trying to save at least something from the warehouse.
“Where? Office? Second floor? Letʼs go!” Several firefighters and a volunteer rush inside the building. Some boxes and fire extinguishers are taken out from there, the latter are used immediately.
Meanwhile, one of the firefighters puts on an oxygen mask, clings to the cylinder, and climbs onto the roof. He is followed by a colleague. Two more rescuers hold a ladder below. A real waterfall begins to flow from above.
“You make photos and, maybe, go back to the basement. There may be another shelling here,” rescuers tell us. It is difficult to understand who exactly: the faces are black, and the light from the flame is not enough to see them well.
“The wall! Wall! Down! Down, shit!” Firefighters quickly descend from the roof to the ground. One of them takes off his oxygen mask, inhales with whistle. “There is a gap between the roof and the wall. The wall may fall. We should go away.”
Firefighters move the ladder to another part of the building. They climb to the roof again. Flashlights are visible in the windows of the second floor — this is another group of rescuers who have gone inside. We leave to catch our breath — behind the fire engines, across the street, to the local courthouse.
“Hey! Iʼm here! Here! My God, in the window! Hello!” can be heard somewhere from behind the broken windows. “Iʼm a court guard. I understand that somehow itʼs not up to me now, but is it possible to ask the rescuers, when they have a free moment, to open the door? The blast wave deformed them, I canʼt get out. And there are bars on all the windows. Please help.”
We call the firemen, three rescuers run up to us in a few minutes. First, they try to open the door with crowbars, then with a screwdriver. In ten minutes, the court guard is free. Dazed, the man goes out on the porch and silently looks at the fire.
“The air alarm just ended. I got up from the basement, made myself tea. And then the explosion happened. I was really terrified. Everything is up in smoke. The windows broke. The fire started. It was very scary. There were three explosions,” he says quietly.
Meanwhile, the fire is becoming less intense. Some of the fire trucks return to the station, some replenish water supplies. The fire is contained.
Four hours after leaving, the burned hospital building
Itʼs dawning. Of all the teams that went to the challenge, only one remains — the one that came first. The fire is gone. Thin, white columns of smoke rise into the sky from the windows of the hospital. Firefighters begin "pouring": they water parts of the premises where flames may still be burning under the debris. A calm man, in a shirt and glasses, approaches us. He didnʼt introduce himself. He says heʼs from a nearby street. Two missiles fell there during the night.
“These people are now homeless, I think. One flew straight into a two-story building,” the stranger tells us. “Now, there is little left: except for part of the room and a few walls. Can you imagine? And the man was sleeping in that room. I donʼt know how he survived. And the missile flew into his neighborsʼ yard, in the barn. Now there is a huge sinkhole, houses are broken, and there are no roofs. I made them coffee, the ambulance examined them. They say itʼs nothing serious. They are sitting in the middle of the road, thinking what to do. And here we had a hospital. This is probably another missile that fell. So I went to see what was happening. You just take care of yourself, please.
A fire truck passes us. The rescuers connect the hoses and start pumping water to the car that arrived on call first. Now the second floor and the roof are being poured with water. Those who are not engaged in extinguishing gather, roll up fire hoses, hide ladders, check the area in case they have forgotten something. Two men sit on the remains of a fence. One of them smokes, and the other drinks water greedily. Already at dawn, it is possible to see that some of them are wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. Stas approaches. I ask who gave the means of protection.
“This was given to us by the State Emergency Service. We didnʼt buy anything ourselves. But who knows how these helmets and bulletproof vests will save us from a missile attack. Or from cluster bombs from the sky. By the way, what is the air alarm? Is it still on?” Stas asks tiredly.
The air alarm still continues. Luckily, without new explosions. We stand in the middle of the road and look at the blackened building of the hospital. A lone female figure in a white robe appears in the distance of the street. In a few minutes, she comes closer: itʼs a woman in her sixties. Sheʼs with a small plastic bag. She looks at the building in surprise.
“Guys, havenʼt you seen the guard here? Is he even alive?”
“Yeah, he is alive,” we answer. “He was walking around the territory somewhere.”
“I should call him. Although I donʼt know... How can I work here today?” says the woman.
A guard with a dog comes out to her from the hospital grounds. And the three of them walk slowly down the empty street into the distance. Firefighters get into their trucks — they can go back.
Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.
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