‘The Storm’ and the carnage
BESLAN, Russia – When “the storm” finally came as the adults feared it would, the bullets started flying, the bombs were exploding, and most of the children didn’t know what to do.
Hundreds of hostages, sweaty, hungry and scared, had been packed into the school gymnasium for three days. They had been told they would die if soldiers tried to rescue them. And suddenly a full-scale war erupted around them – the soldiers were coming.
Sosik Parastayev, who had just begun the fourth grade, noticed a man in uniform at the gym window, beckoning him to jump out. Sosik and his brother Atik, a year younger, scampered to the window along with their mother, Alyona Kokoyeva, who had been caught with them in the three-day siege of School No. 1. But as she tried to clear out the broken glass from the window so the boys could leap out, Sosik said, a bullet sliced through the air and ripped into her body.
“I was nearly shot” too, Sosik said. “I jumped out the window … Some soldiers grabbed me as soon as I jumped out. Everyone wet their pants.”
His mother survived, but he lost contact with his younger brother.
The army commando attack on the captured school in this town in southern Russia dragged on for hours after the assault Friday. But for the vast majority of the children held prisoner by Chechen guerrillas, “the storm,” as the survivors described the military onslaught, took place in a few chaotic and decisive minutes. Those who made it out of the gym right away were survivors. Those who did not mostly died.
Explosives which the guerrillas had wired around the gym blew up in a devastating cascade shortly after the first shots were fired, bringing the ceiling down from two floors above on top of hundreds of school children who never had a chance.
Hours later, the demolished gym still smoldered, its shattered carcass blackened and crumbled. By nightfall, most of the crushed bodies of students remained pinned under the rubble, while soldiers searched for lingering guerrillas and detonated the remaining booby trap bombs left behind.
Officials estimated the death toll at more than 200. Early today, 531 people remained hospitalized, including 283 children – 92 of the youngsters in “very grave” condition, health officials said.