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Special Report from Odesa Fire Scene Where 16 Died
18 December, 2019
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A memorial commemorating the victims of the Odesa college fire in Odesa, Ukraine. December 11, 2019. Tetiana Bezruk / hromadske

16 people were killed in a fire at the Odesa College of Economics, Law and Hotel and Restaurant Business on December 4. Rescuers kept finding new bodies until a week later, as the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU) staff was clearing the rubble on 25 Troitska Street in the center of the south Ukrainian port city. Police are carrying out investigative actions, and the Odesites are bringing toys and flowers to the burnt building. So what do we know about the fire?

“She called me around 11 a.m. and started talking so sweetly into the phone telling how much she loves us all. Ksiushechka said goodbye. She said: ‘Mom, everything's on fire here, you can't imagine. I will jump out.’ And I told her to hold on to the last, my girl. But she no longer had the strength to hold on,” says Olha Babenko, the mother of 17-year-old Kseniya.

We stand with Olha and her husband Arkadiy near the iron nets that block the Troitska (“Trinity”) Street. The passage is closed. National guardsmen and employees of the Odesa municipal guard stand nearby. There are hundreds of red carnations and white roses on the iron floors and cobblestones, paired with black commemorative ribbons.

On December 4, a fire broke out inside the Odesa College of Economics, Law, and Hotel and Restaurant Business, killing 16 people. Second-year student Kseniya Babenko jumped to her death from the fourth floor of a burning building. She was buried in her native village of Novomykolayivka. In the certificate detailing the cause of death, doctor Viktor Mahrinchuk wrote "fall from a building".

“We weren’t given Ksiusha's body until we signed the papers about the causes of death. I was summoned to two different prosecutor's offices... I do not even remember which ones anymore,” says Arkadiy Babenko.

All the while, as we speak to the parents of the late student, passers-by approach the intersection at Troitska Street. They take pictures, light lamps, bring flowers. A man shouts  from the crowd, "So who will carry punishment for the fire?" Everyone who gathered in front of the fence turns to look at him. “Who?” he continues. There is no answer.

The work at the college itself does not stop: SESU officials are clearing the rubble. Two cranes pull large fragments of iron from a building and load them into trucks. A KamAZ truck delivers hay to the blocked-off street. The hay is placed under the part of the burned down building that is planned for demolition. Investigators are also working here with the rescuers.

The police have three versions of the fire: fire negligence, arson, and faulty wiring. Oleh Bekh, Chief of Police of Odesa, said that the investigation already has the first results, which, in particular, refers to violations of fire safety and evacuation of people. According to the First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Serhiy Yarovyi, the Governmental Commission for the Investigation of Fire is due to explain the preliminary causes of the fire by December 20. And the director of the college Lyubov Kocherha was initially served with charges of malpractice and later sentenced to 24-hour home confinement for two months.

Rescuers and firefighters continue to search for missing persons after fire in Odesa College building, Odesa, December 11, 2019. Photo: Tetiana Bezruk / hromadske

43-year-old college teacher Anna Bortiuk was killed helping students get out of the burning building. The body of the woman was found the day after the fire.

“If they had bought trampolines and tarpaulins, children would have held those tarpaulins with their own hands. They would have survived. They would have broken their legs, their arms, but they would be alive,” says Arkadiy Babenko.

“But it wasn’t our Ksiusha who fell on the rescuer. We watched the video. It's not her,” adds his wife.

The man mentioned by the mother of the deceased Kseniya is fireman Serhiy Shatokhin. He was one of the first to extinguish the fire. Shatokhin was using a ladder to reach the upper floors to rescue those who remained in the building. At that time, one of the students jumped out of the window and fell directly on Shatokhin. The man died on December 7 from injuries.

“When I arrived, he was already taken out. Well, 5-7 minutes have passed since he arrived at the scene of the fire. I feel sorry for his wife. It's tough for her. Serhiy has three children left, two of them are minors,” says Shatokhin’s boss, deputy chief of the seventh fire department of Odesa Volodymyr Kryzhanovskyi.

Kryzhanovskyi is 35. He knew Shatokhin for 12 years. Kryzhanovskyi attended the funeral service. But he couldn’t go to the funeral in Shatokhin’s native village – Hradenytsia. Kryzhanovskyi was being treated at an Odesa military hospital.

“I have a brain, spine and right leg injuries. My colleague Artem Shcherbakov and chief Dmytro Nesterenko were also injured,” the firefighter tells us.

Kryzhanovskyi along with four other men had to replace their colleagues in the burning building. As they ascended to the second floor, the fire also filled the two above. Then the third and fourth floors collapsed. The firefighters and everyone there ended up in the rubble.

“I have been a firefighter for 15 years, but this was the worst fire I’ve ever seen,” says Kryzhanovskyi.

Rescuers and firefighters continue to search for missing persons after fire in Odesa College building, Odesa, December 11, 2019. Photo: Tetiana Bezruk / hromadske

On the way from the military hospital, where I met with Kryzhanovskyi, I meet Oleksandr Krytskyi, Deputy Head of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in the Odesa region. He periodically comes out to journalists and reports the latest news about Troitska Street. Krytskyi is tired. I ask if the wall in the courtyard of the building has been demolished.

"I just told your colleagues everything," the rescuer replies.

"I was in the hospital with the firefighters," I say.

“They tried to demolish it, but fog covered the city. Because of it all the work was put on hold. We will continue tomorrow.”

Krytskyi throws dirty boots into the car trunk and goes to rest. The fog is genuinely all over Odesa. It hides the top floors of buildings. The moist air mixes with the smell of fire. A week has passed since the fire*.

/By Tetiana Bezruk

*This article was written on December 12

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