Rescuers struggled to save lives after a Russian strike destroyed a Dnipro apartment building

Rescuers work to free victims from the rubble of a residential apartment complex that was hit by Russian forces in Dnipro, Ukraine, on January 14, 2023. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

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DNIPRO, Ukraine — Two hours after a Russian missile slammed into a Ukrainian apartment complex on Saturday, shocking the city that has served as a relatively safe haven for the war’s displaced, rescue workers digging through rubble spotted a sudden movement from above.

On the eighth floor, they could see the arm of a bloodied elderly woman, so buried in debris she could barely move, waving a piece of red fabric. Below her, dozens of apartments had collapsed, swallowing residents into some 30 feet of rubble.

From inside the damaged building, she was somehow alive — and calling for help.

Russia’s blatant attack on civilians here — the worst to strike this city since Russia invaded Ukraine last February — came just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed his most senior military officer, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, as the new overseer of his relentless war in Ukraine.

The strike, which coincided with the Orthodox New Year, served as a grim message that Putin’s close confidant is likely to continue the violent missile strikes on civilian targets that have become a hallmark of Russia’s assault. The bombing, one of a wave of attacks Saturday across Ukraine, may have destroyed as many as 30 apartments in the sprawling complex, said Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky who shared a video of the destruction.

Residents were trapped as flames engulfed part of the structure, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the president’s office, said on Telegram.

At least 12 people died in the apartment building Saturday and dozens of others were wounded. At nightfall, about 20 people had been rescued, he said. Many more are believed to be buried in the ruins. . As the city neared its midnight curfew, dogs wearing specialized shoes to protect them from injuries were scaling the mound of debris, sniffing for survivors. Off to the side, the dead lay on the ground in white bags, red and white tape wrapped around them.

The living, hundreds of them, appeared out of the darkness, as they do in so many Ukrainian towns on so many nights, to clean up and hand out food and hot drinks.

While Russian missiles struck other Ukrainian cities on Saturday, none caused anything close to the scale of damage in Dnipro. The attack came as an exceptional shock here because it’s been something of a refuge. Many displaced people, from places such as the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol or the front line regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, have relocated here seeking safety and normalcy.

“We don’t have any safe spaces in Ukraine anymore,” said Maksym Chornyi, 32, who volunteered to help rescue people at the scene. “It needs to be clear to Europe as well, because these rockets can land there too.”

He was at home on the other side of Dnipro on Saturday afternoon when he heard the attack — so powerful it sent a shock wave through much of the city.

He rushed to the scene, where he climbed through the wreckage to search for survivors with nothing more than a face mask to protect him from the smoke billowing through the air. After several hours, rescue workers asked him and other volunteers to move back so they could bring heavy machinery into the area to keep digging. He stepped away, his face dark with soot.

What he witnessed inside the wreckage was nightmarish.

At one point, he heard screaming and thought it was coming from below. Then he realized it was the woman trapped on the eighth floor, who told rescuers her name was Lyuba. Later, he looked up and realized a dead man was hanging off the other side of the building — his intestines ripped out of his body.

Just nearby, “there was blood streaked down the wall,” Chornyi said. “I feel horrible.”

Just before 8 p.m., rescue workers finally dug Lyuba out of the remains of her home and slowly lowered her to the ground in a yellow stretcher. She lay silently as they wrapped her in a foil blanket.

One of the workers who carried her down blew her a kiss and leaned over her. “I promised I was going to save you and I did,” he said. “Everything is going to be ok.”

Then they whisked her away in an ambulance.

One of the Ukrainian Red Cross medics who helped carry her to safety said she believed both her legs were broken. Her face was covered in blood.

When asked what message she would want to send the world after this attack, the medic, who identified herself only as Natalya, 36, didn’t hesitate.

“Stop Russia,” she said.

Nadya Yaroshenko’s son Rostyslav, who is 12, was home alone in their third-floor apartment when the missile struck. He called his mom in a panic, asking how he could flee, she recalled.

“’There are no stairs,’” he told her. With much of the building destroyed, he crawled toward the elevator and waited for help, she said.

Her friends pushed past first responders, screaming that there was a child trapped inside. Then one scaled the building and carried him out through a window, unharmed.

Hours later, the family was still waiting for any sign of their missing cat and dog.

Then her neighbor, Andriy Filkovich called with good news. “Nadya, the dog is next to me with her savior. Where are you?” he said.

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A firefighter handed the shaking dachshund, named Cola, back to Yaroshenko, who wrapped her in her arms. “You were so scared,” she cooed. “Don’t be scared.”

Their cat, Bilyash, whose blue and yellow eyes match the Ukrainian flag, was still missing.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed Friday to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged in recent days, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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