Twenty-four hours after two Russian X-22 cruise missiles hit a crowded shopping centre in Kremenchuk, small plumes of black smoke could still be seen rising from the smoking ruins. Dozens of people who feared their loved ones had been inside the building when the deadly explosions ripped through it looked on in grim silence as a giant crane removed sections of the collapsed roof, exposing blackened debris and twisted metal underneath.
Away from onlookers, rescue workers had placed a stretcher where they carefully placed fragments of charred human remains found in the rubble.
Authorities estimate that there were between 200 and 1000 people inside at the time of the attack. Many managed to flee to a nearby bomb shelter when they heard the air raid sirens. Others didn’t make it in time and remained trapped inside. At least 18 people were killed and 21 are still missing.
When the missile struck, at 3.53pm on Monday, it ignited a huge fire that took 300 emergency workers more than four hours to extinguish.
Mykola Lukash, from the Kremenchuk district prosecutor’s office, said that members of his team had recovered dozens of body fragments.
“We need to carry out DNA tests to identify them,” Lukash said. “What concerns us are the 21 missing persons reports which had been submitted by locals searching for loved ones who had gone missing in the building.”
For over 20 hours, military personnel, volunteers, firefighters and police have been working non-stop to recover bodies from the rubble in the hope of finding survivors.
“We pulled out several bodies, but there are definitely more trapped under the rubble,” said Oleksii, 46, a firefighter. “This is normally a very crowded place.”
Every day, hundreds of people flock to the mall in Kremenchuk to do their shopping or have a coffee and a chat with friends. The only difference between this and any other shopping centre around the world is that here an unpredictable war is raging, one capable of destroying lives in a matter of seconds, even in a place hundreds of miles from the frontline or in cities that have never been bombed before. The truth is that nowhere in Ukraine is safe from Russian missiles or air raids.
“I left the building two minutes before the explosion,” said Yevhenia Semyonova, 38, a shop assistant at a sportswear outlet inside the mall. “My colleagues who are working in bigger stores, like the supermarket for example, had to wait for the customers to get out before they could leave. We were lucky because there were no customers in our store during the alarm.
“At the beginning of the war, all the shops stopped working during air sirens. But eventually people got used to it and started ignoring the sirens. Unfortunately that’s what happened yesterday too. A lot of people I know and some friends are still missing.”
The Guardian has seen a phone message allegedly sent by the local management of the mall on 23 June, urging employees not to leave the shopping centre when air raid sirens go off.
“Starting from today, this shopping centre will not close during the air alarms’’, reads the message. “The shopping centre works from 8am till 9pm. No breaks.”
At least five employees confirmed they had received the message.
A woman who worked in the supermarket inside the mall said she managed to escape immediately after the explosion.
“Usually on Mondays I was forced to take my little daughter to work because the kindergarten was closed. But luckily yesterday I found someone to take care of her while I was working. Some of my colleagues didn’t make it. Someone will certainly still be there, under the rubble.”
Oleksandra, who worked in a jewellery shop, was supposed to open her store today at 10am. “I had a day off yesterday’’, she said, tears streaming down her face as she surveyed the rubble. “I had coffee with my colleagues here yesterday morning. There are some people I know who are missing. There was a huge toy store inside the mall. There could be children.’’
As night fell in Kremenchuk on Monday, the burned-out building was illuminated by floodlights as emergency workers and soldiers combed through the rubbles, and relatives of those missing waited across the street.
“The relatives are confused and anxious,”, said Yulia Fesieieva, a senior psychologist of Poltava regional state emergency service. “We observe and single out people who are visibly in distress. We approach them and introduce ourselves and try to help them. I’ve spoken to about 20 people so far.”
She continued: “There was a young man who was shaking, holding his dog in his arms. He was extremely nervous and in shock. He was trying to call his wife who had left the house with her best friend to buy food for their pet but she didn’t pick up. In the end, fortunately, his wife left the building 10 minutes before the attack. But her best friend, unfortunately, decided to stay behind and continue shopping. She wasn’t able to leave the building before the explosion and died in an intensive care unit.”
The attack came on the day of a G7 meeting in Germany where leaders discussed ways to punish Moscow for its invasion and pledged to stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.
Ukraine’s air force command said in a statement that Russia hit the mall, which is located near a railway station, with two X-22 cruise missiles that were fired from Tu-22M long-range bombers. According to Kyiv, the planes fired their rockets while in the sky over the Kursk region of Russia, located near the Ukrainian border.
Commenting on the strike in his nightly video address, Volodymyr Zelenskiy called Russia “the largest terrorist organisation in the world”.
On Monday, Russia’s ministry of defence claimed the fire in the shopping mall in Kremenchuk was caused by “the detonation of stored ammunition for western weapons”. No evidence was offered to back up the claim.
Outside the mall, Ukrainian police had set up a table where they had placed twisted bits of metal believed to be from the missiles.
Volodymyr Vasylenko, 61, born and raised in Kremunchuk arrived on Tuesday morning at the site of the attack, to leave some flowers among the rubble. “I don’t know how and why we deserve this,” he said. “They want us to live in fear. But we must not be afraid. We can just continue to pray. Maybe this was God’s plan so we could finally get the weapons we needed. In the meantime, there is nothing we can do, but to continue doing what one can do.”
Additional reporting by Artem Mazhulin