A Russian plane crashed into a house. Death was randomly distributed.

CHERNIVIH, Ukraine — It was Yulia Hrebnyeva’s meticulousness that saved her family’s life. First, she sent her husband outside to fix t...


CHERNIVIH, Ukraine — It was Yulia Hrebnyeva’s meticulousness that saved her family’s life.

First, she sent her husband outside to fix the lock on their house door. Then she took her children down to the basement, insisting that they help her tidy up the space where they slept each night to avoid Russian missile attacks.

And that’s when a Russian Su-34 warplane crashed on the roof of their two-story house.

A few streets away, Vitaliy Serhienko was not so lucky. The pilot of the downed Russian plane had ejected. Mr. Serhienko and his brother-in-law, Serhiy Tkachenko, heard footsteps on their roof and came out to investigate. “We wanted to catch him,” Mr Tkachenko said.

The two men were approaching the source of the noise from opposite directions when Mr. Tkachenko heard gunshots. The pilot had shot Mr. Serhienko in the chest; he died in his own chicken coop.

Tragedy and serendipity are randomly distributed in war, and on March 5, when a Russian plane fell from the sky, they produced two very different results in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine. A family lived, almost miraculously, while Mr. Serhienko, in the wrong place at the wrong time, ended up dying.

There was an additional element in the equation: the Russian pilot did not have the chance to drop his bombs.

“If those bombs had fallen on Chernihiv, there would have been so many more casualties,” Ms Hrebnyeva said as she surveyed the wreckage still in her yard more than two months after the crash. “Our house stopped him.”

Mr. Serhienko’s sister, Svitlana Voyteshenko, buried him the following day. “He was such a good man, he worked hard,” she said. “Everyone loved him.”

The accident claimed another victim when flames spread to a house across Ms Hrebnyeva’s yard and an elderly, bedridden man was burned to death.

Chernihiv, located just 40 miles from Belarus and 55 miles from Russia, was quickly surrounded at the start of the war, besieged by invading Russian troops from both sides. The the attacks were fierce. Russian forces intentionally bombed critical infrastructure such as water and electricity stations, as well as food supplies, Oleksandr A. Lomako, head of the Cherhiniv city council, said in an interview, but did not never took full control of downtown.

Lomako said prosecutors recorded 350 people killed as a result of missile strikes, and he estimated another 700 died from siege-related causes: lack of electricity, water and food.

The outrage at the devastation and death that Russia had inflicted was simmering among the residents when the pilot catapulted himself out of the plane. Members of the Chernihiv Territorial Defence, a unit of the volunteer army, heard the explosion, said a soldier, Ivan Lut. He ran to where he thought the pilot might land, saw the orange-and-white parachute hanging over the house, and began his own pursuit, he said.

The chase ended next to Mr Tkachenko’s home when the Russian pilot, named in an intelligence investigation as Major Aleksandr V. Krasnoyartsev, was apprehended.

His face and chest were covered in blood. Lying flat on the ground, he raised his arms, pleading: “Don’t shoot, I surrender!” according to video footage shot on a Ukrainian soldier’s cellphone.

Soon a mob gathered, some seeking revenge. “We had to fight with our own guys to save his life,” Mr Lut said, noting that soldiers had been ordered to capture the pilot alive. The co-pilot was already dead when the soldiers found him.

The remains of the plane, a medium-range supersonic bomber, are strewn across Mrs Hrebnyeva’s yard. She pointed to the remains of a sauna and a small pool nearby. Tulips sprang from the metal wreckage of the plane.

Ms Hrebnyeva was walking towards a scorched tree stump when she saw something amidst the rubble: a tiny pair of jeans belonging to her 6-year-old son, still neatly folded, though the drawer containing them was unrecognizable . . There was more: red shorts with the waistband intact but the back burned; a small swimsuit; the sportswear of his 10-year-old son, Denys.

“I almost want to take it home and wash it and iron it,” she said. She had returned that Saturday morning from a shift organizing supplies for the soldiers defending the city. She bought a lock at the hardware store across the street. Her husband, Rostyslav, was in the kitchen boiling dumplings for their three children and another child who had been separated from his parents after the Chernihiv attack on the first day of the war.

Ms Hrebnyeva’s husband swore jokingly when she sent him outside to install the new lock, she said. She took the kids to the basement to clean up.

And then they heard collapsing. “The bricks were pouring,” she said. “Everything started shaking.” She thought she heard gunshots, she added, but it was the roof shingles coming undone.

Her husband, a retired military pilot, was burned on the hands and face, but was able to get help to get her and the four children out of the basement.

“If my husband hadn’t opened the door, we would have been burned alive,” Ms Hrebnyeva said.

From a military point of view, the destruction of the aircraft was a sign of Ukraine’s success in preventing Russia from gaining air superiority. Before the start of the full-scale invasion, it was widely believed that Russia could overpower the Ukrainian Air Force within days and establish control of the skies. But Ukraine was able to shoot down at least 25 Russian warplanes, according to the military analysis site Oryx. More than a third of them were destroyed over several days in early March, many by handheld shoulder fire surface-to-air missiles.

Russian pilots were flying low to avoid Ukrainian missile systems, said Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a military research organization in London.

The plane that crashed on March 5 was among eight or nine others shot down in a matter of days. This loss rate convinced Russian commanders that flying low during the day would not be viable, forcing pilots to fly at night, when darkness made it much more difficult for Ukraine to use surface-to-air missiles effectively. Mr. Bronk said.

During this flight, the Ukrainian army was able to shoot down the warplane before it dropped all its weapons: Pictures of the same type planes taking off the next day, released by the Russian Defense Ministry, showed it was carrying at least eight 500-kilogram unguided bombs.

Mr Lut said the pilot told them he only received the targets of the missile fire when he was in the air and was unaware that they were hitting civilian targets.

Ms Voyteshenko, whose brother was killed in the chicken coop, said the pilot looked her in the eye and told her he hadn’t realized civilians were living there.

Did she believe him? “Of course not,” she said.

As she stood next to the site where her brother was killed, Ms Voyteshenko looked at an apple tree planted by her parents. She and her brother had been picking its fruit together since they were children.

His brother had started installing the insulation and redoing the facade of their house last fall.

“Now I don’t know if we can finish it,” she said.

Ms. Hrebnyeva marveled at the turn of events in her family’s life. “On March 5, I was distributing clothes and food to people,” she added. “On March 6, we had nothing. People started bringing it to us.

She said she was determined to rebuild her house. Her husband is currently with the children in Norway.

“I want to stay. I really want to stay here and rebuild my house in this very place, just to upset the ruscists,” she said, using a neologism for “Russian fascists‘ which has become widespread in Ukraine since the invasion.

“I want to show everyone that war is war, but life goes on,” she added. “We Ukrainians are strong and unbreakable – unbeatable.”



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Newsrust - US Top News: A Russian plane crashed into a house. Death was randomly distributed.
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