KREMENCHUK, UKRAINE (NYTIMES) – For Lyudmila Mykhailets, it was a simple trip to the mall with her husband, Nikolai, to check the prices of a new blender at the Comfy.ua store. In an instant, it turned into something horrific.
She ignored an air-raid siren that sounded as they entered the Amstor mall complex in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine, on Monday afternoon, thinking she would just pop in quickly and find the price. She was talking to a shop assistant when a 2,000-pound Russian missile landed on the mall, not far from where she was standing.
“And then I remember myself flying,” Mykhailets said in an interview on Tuesday (June 28) morning as she lay in a hospital bed in Kremenchuk. “I was flying headfirst somewhere. My whole body was beaten, all over, and shards were falling on me.”
By the time she landed, two pieces of debris had fallen on her and she called out to her husband for help. He had fallen unconscious. Ms Mykhailets’ arm was broken and was dangling to the side.
“Considering what happened there, we came out well,” she said. Her mouth and face were covered in scars and stitches. “We survived.” She was lucky.
As emergency workers combed through the rubble of the mall Tuesday morning, the city’s mayor said the death toll from the missile strike had risen to 18. He declared three days of mourning.
The strike was the latest example of Russia’s persistence in launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians at nonmilitary targets.
Some 25 people had been hospitalised after the strike and 21 remained missing, Dmytro Lunin, the governor of the Poltava region, said in a news conference on Tuesday afternoon. Rescuers were still digging through the rubble, he added, but it would be impossible for anyone else to be found alive.
Hundreds had been inside the mall. About 60 people had sought medical help, the mayor, Vitaliy Maletskiy, wrote on Facebook. At the hospital where Ms Mykhailets was being treated, five people were in critical condition, according to the chief doctor Oksana Korlyakova.
In the gutted remains of the Comfy store, remnants of home appliances were strewed about – a set of pot lids, and the metal part of a hand-held blender, the kind Mykhailets was looking for. Nearby, children’s party favours were scattered about. Amstor had the biggest children’s play centre in Kremenchuk.
Nine people died in the Comfy store, authorities said, because the missile struck close by.
“The fire spread in a few minutes, almost instantly,” said Dr Oleksandr Lysenko, deputy head of the Main Directorate of the State Emergency Service in Poltava region, as workers continued to search for the missing. Everything around him in the back of the mall complex was destroyed, except for some packages of bird food from the pet store that had stood there.
“There was no chance for people to escape.”
Mr Nikolai Mykhailets said he was lucky because he regained consciousness after a water pipe exploded above him.
“I woke up from the fact that water was dripping on me,” he said from his hospital bed. His head and legs were bandaged. “It was broken pipes. If it wasn’t for the water, I might have burned alive. I remember lying there and feeling like, ‘Oh yes, pour on me.'”
He crawled out from under the rubble and worked to free his wife from the slab.
“There was so much smoke and fire,” he said. “People were crying, yelling, running. Some just laid under the slabs. I saw some head and hands sticking out from underneath.”
Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Irina Venediktova, arrived on the scene on Tuesday with a team of investigators to collect evidence about the attack, which she said constituted a “war crime” under Ukrainian law.
The prosecutor denounced what she described as the “systematic shelling of civilian infrastructure: hospitals, kindergartens, malls as you see here.” “I am sure the Russians know very well that they are killing civilians,” Ms Venediktova added. “For them it is not news, but they do it again and again.”
Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that it had struck Kremenchuk with what it described as “high-precision missiles.” But it said that its target had been depots containing munitions for weapons systems supplied by the United States and European countries, and that a munitions explosion had set the mall ablaze.
The claims could not be independently verified, and Ukraine’s interior minister said at a briefing for journalists that “there is no military object in a five-kilometre radius.” A security camera from a gas station captured two Russian strikes on the area near the mall. The video was shared on Telegram by Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to the interior minister.
The video, which was analysed by The New York Times, shows one strike hitting near or at the mall, while the second hits an industrial site next to the mall. The industrial site is operated by Kredmash, a manufacturer of asphalt-mixing plants, and Ukrainian authorities have said that it did not serve any military purpose.
A woman who worked at the factory said the same.
“Almost nothing was happening there,” the woman, Margarita Svyatobog, 58, said when interviewed nearby. She had been waiting for the war to end so she could go back to work.
“I worked at that factory for almost my whole life, and now I will be left without work,” she added, tearing up.
Authorities said the weapons that hit both the factory and the mall were old Soviet X-22 missiles weighing about 2,000 pounds.
In a small park next to the shopping centre, a makeshift memorial had been set up of 16 vases filled with flowers – one for each of the 16 casualties initially announced Monday night. Sombre visitors lit candles for the dead.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine claimed in an evening video address that the strike was intentional. “This is not an accidental hit – this is a calculated Russian strike,” he said.
This was the sixth and most deadly Russian missile strike on Kremenchuk, an industrial city that had a prewar population of 217,000. Although some residents have left, many displaced people have arrived from other cities that have faced heavy bombardment, such as Kharkiv and Mariupol.
Among the wounded in Monday’s strike was Yulia, 22, who had fled to Kremenchuk from Kharkiv with her mother. They previously lived in Luhansk, a city that was occupied by Moscow-backed separatists in 2014.
Yulia and her mother, Larisa, had fled to Kharkiv in the early part of the war, and then two months ago fled again to Kremenchuk because of heavy shelling in Kharkiv. Yulia had found a job selling mobile phones in the shopping centre.
“We hoped we would be safe here,” said Larisa, who like her daughter did not feel comfortable sharing her last name. “This is a deep trauma for my soul.”
In the hours after the strike, pro-Moscow news outlets and social media channels were quick to dismiss the attack as staged by the Ukrainians.
“I want the world to know that this is not fake,” Larisa said, speaking while visiting her daughter at the hospital. “People suffered, and it is very scary.”
Mr Mykhailets, a white bandage wrapped around his head, his face, arms, and legs scarred and wounded, was still trying to make sense of what had happened.
“I understand the reasons to hit infrastructure, to break the power plants and gas stations,” he said. “But to hit the mall is absurd. There were a lot of children there. Near Comfy there is a children’s play place. The strike hit right there.”