CHERNIHIV, 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 front door.
She then took her children into the basement, insisting that they help her tidy up the space where they had been sleeping every night to avoid Russian missile attacks.
Territorial Defense volunteer Ivan Lut in the veterans’ section of the Chernihi cemetery. Photo David Guttenfelder/The New York Times.
And that’s when a Russian Su-34 fighter jet sand crashed into the ceiling of his two-story house.
A few blocks away, Vitaliy Serhienko was not so lucky.
The pilot of the downed Russian plane had ejected.
Serhienko and his brother-in-law, Serhiy Tkachenko, heard footsteps on the roof and went outside to investigate.
Russian forces intentionally bombed critical infrastructure such as water and electricity stations and food storage, city council chief says. Photo David Guttenfelder/The New York Times.
“We wanted to catch him,” Tkachenko said.
The two men were approaching the source of the noise from opposite directions when Tkachenko heard gunshots.
The pilot had shot Serhienko in the chest; he died in his own chicken coop.
Tragedy and chance 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 Ukrainian soldier with a mobile phone showing a photo of the Russian pilot who was captured in March. – Photo (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times.
One family survived, almost miraculously, while Serhienko, in the wrong place at the wrong time, ended up dead.
There was an additional element in the equation:
the russian pilot he didn’t get a chance to drop his bombs.
“If these bombs had fallen on Chernihiv, there would be a lot more victims,” Hrebnyeva said as she surveyed wreckage still in her garden more than two months after the accident.
“Our house stopped him.”
Serhienko’s sister, Svitlana Voyteshenko, buried him the next day.
“He was such a good man, he worked hard,” she said.
“Everybody liked it.”
Svitlana Voyteshenko on the day her family returned to see the remains of her house, destroyed in the crash of a Russian fighter plane, in Chernihiv, Ukraine. . Photo David Guttenfelder/The New York Times.
The accident took another life when the flames spread to a house across 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 Russian troops invading from both sides.
The attacks were fierce.
Russian forces intentionally bombed critical infrastructure such as water and electricity stations, as well as food storage, said Oleksandr A. Lomako, head of the Cherhiniv City Council, but never gained full control of the city center.
Lomako said prosecutors had recorded 350 people dead as a result of the missile strikes, and estimated that another 700 had died from siege-related causes:
lack of electricity, water and food.
Outrage at the devastation and death Russia had inflicted simmered among residents as the pilot was catapulted from the plane.
Members of the Chernihiv Territorial Defense, a volunteer army unit, heard the blast, 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 persecutionno, he said.
The manhunt ended next to Tkachenko’s house when the Russian pilot, named in an intelligence investigation as Maj. Alexander Krasnoyartsev, was detained.
His face and chest were covered in blood.
Lying on his back on the ground, he raised his arms, pleading:
“Don’t shoot, I surrender!” according to video footage shot on the mobile phone of a Ukrainian soldier.
Soon, a crowd gathered, some seeking revenge.
“We had to fight with our own boys to save his life,” Lut said, noting that the soldiers had been given the order to capture the pilot alive.
The co-pilot was already dead when the soldiers found him.
The wreckage of the plane, a supersonic medium-range bomber, is strewn across Hrebnyeva’s yard.
He pointed to the remains of a nearby sauna and small pool. Tulips poked through the metal wreckage of the plane.
Hrebnyeva was walking towards a burned tree trunk when she saw something in the rubble:
a tiny pair of jeans belonging to his 6-year-old son, still neatly folded, though the drawer that once contained them was unrecognizable.
There was more: red shorts with the waist intact but the back burned; a tiny swimsuit; the sportswear of her 10-year-old son, Denys.
“I almost want to take it home, wash it and iron it,” she said.
arrived home that Saturday morning after a shift organizing supplies for the soldiers defending the city.
He bought a padlock at the hardware store across the street.
Her husband, Rostyslav, was in the kitchen boiling dumplings for their three children and another boy who had been separated from his parents after Chernihiv was attacked on the first day of the war.
Yulia Hrebnyeva’s husband playfully cursed when she sent him outside to install the new lock, she said.
He took the children to the basement to clean.
And then they heard the collapse. “The bricks were falling,” she said.
Everything started to shake. She thought she heard gunshots, she added, but it was the roof tiles coming apart.
Her husband, a retired military pilot, suffered burns to his 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, they would have burned us alive,” Hrebnyeva said.
From a military point of view, the plane’s destruction was a sign of Ukraine’s success in preventing Russia from gaining air superiority.
Before the full-scale invasion began, it was widely believed that Russia could subdue the Ukrainian air force in a matter of days and establish control of the skies.
But Ukraine has been able to topple the least 25 planes Russian fighters, according to the Oryx military analysis site.
More than a third of them were destroyed over several days in early March, many by man-portable surface-to-air missiles fired from the shoulder.
Russian pilots were flying low to avoid Ukraine’s 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 over a period of several days.
That loss rate convinced Russian commanders that flying low during the day would be untenablewhich would force pilots to fly at night, when darkness makes it much more difficult for Ukraine to use surface-to-air missiles effectively, Bronk said.
On this flight, the Ukrainian military was able to shoot down the fighter jet before it dropped all of its weapons:
footage of the same type of plane taking off the next day, released by the Russian Defense Ministry, showed it had been carrying at least eight bombs unguided 500 kilograms.
Lut said the pilot told them that he had only received the targets of the missile strikes while in the air and was unaware that they were hitting civilian targets.
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 lived there.
Did she believe him?
“Of course not,” she said.
Standing by the site where his brother was killed, Voyteshenko looked at an apple tree planted by his parents.
She and her brother had picked its fruit together since they were children.
His brother had started installing insulation and remodeling the exterior of their house last fall.
“Now I don’t know if we will be able to complete it,” he said.
Hrebnyeva marveled at the turn of events in her family’s life.
“On March 5, I was handing out clothes and food to people,” he 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 on this very spot, just to spite the Ruscists,” he said, using a neologism for “Russian fascists” that has become widespread in Ukraine since the invasion.
“I want to show everyone that war is war, but life goes on,” he added.
“Ukrainians are strong and unbreakable, unbeatable.”
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