Explosion in Ukraine Kills at Least 51 Gathered for a Wake

By John Mercury October 8, 2023

They came to mourn the dead, but in a split second of thunder and flying debris, more than 50 people who had gathered for a wake were themselves killed on Thursday when a giant explosion tore through a shop in a tiny Ukrainian village.

It was one of the biggest losses of civilian life since the war began. Among the dead was a 6-year-old child, according to the head of the local military administration.

Ukrainian officials blamed a Russian military strike in the village of Hroza, in northeastern Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced it as “a demonstrably brutal Russian crime.”

The Ukrainian Internal Affairs Ministry said initial evidence indicated that the shop had been hit by an Iskander missile, which Russia has used against Ukraine during the war.

The tiny enclave had no obvious military or industrial targets nearby.

“Almost half of the village was killed by a single strike,” said Dmytro Chubenko, a local official.

Confronted with a field of barely recognizable debris where a community gathering spot once stood, rescuers in hard hats and fluorescent gear girded themselves on Thursday for gruesome finds in Hroza as they set about digging with shovels and other tools.

Ghastly images soon spread from the tiny village to screens around the world. In some, more than a dozen corpses lay on the ground face down, on their sides or, in one case, piled one atop the other. Clothes were charred and torn; limbs appeared to be mangled. In one photo, a woman in a flannel shirt stood over the bodies and looked down, holding her hand to her mouth.

At least 51 died and six others were wounded, the authorities said. The dead were covered as best as they could be, until the body bags arrived.

By day’s end, Hroza had joined the grim list of names etched into the roster of devastated Ukrainian towns and cities — among them Kramatorsk, where more than 50 civilians died when Russian forces shelled a train station in April 2022, and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where at least 500 civilians were killed in Russian rocket and missile attacks a month earlier.

The disaster occurred on the same day that Mr. Zelensky set out on a trip to shore up Western backing for Ukraine. He took part in a European summit in Spain aimed at strengthening cooperation across the continent as concern rose about waning support for his country as it faced another winter of Russian aggression.

Asked if he was concerned about a possible scaling back of U.S. military aid, Mr. Zelensky said it was “too late for us to worry.” But in a speech at the summit, he described as positive meetings he had last month with President Biden and members of Congress.

“I am confident in America,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Speaking on Thursday at a Kremlin-affiliated research institute in the Black Sea city of Sochi, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia once again blamed Western antagonists for the war in Ukraine and claimed Moscow sought an end to the conflict. “We try to stop it,” he said.

Mr. Putin also claimed that his country had successfully tested the Burevestnik, an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile, and had almost completed work on a new type of nuclear-capable ballistic missile.

“No one in their sound mind will use a nuclear weapon against Russia,” Mr. Putin said.

Russian officials did not address the deaths in Hroza in public comments on Thursday, and the Kremlin routinely denies targeting civilians. But schools, theaters, apartment complexes and complexes that provide water, electricity and heat to ordinary civilians in Ukraine have all been hit since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

On occasion, in the fog of war, some deaths initially attributed to the Russians later proved to have other explanations. In September, in one of the deadliest incidents in months, a strike on the eastern city of Kostiantynivka killed at least 15 civilians and injured more than 30 others. An investigation by The New York Times later suggested that an errant Ukrainian missile was most likely to blame.

Hroza, which is in the region of Kharkiv, is about 23 miles from the front line. Two days before the strike there, Mr. Zelensky’s office said he had handed out medals to troops in a forest outside the city of Kupiansk, which is between Hroza and the front line.

Mr. Chubenko, a spokesman for the Kharkiv regional prosecutors’ office, said the residents had been gathering to mourn a Ukrainian soldier. The explosion at the building erupted at about 1 p.m. local time. Images verified by The Times show that the 3,000-square-foot structure was almost entirely destroyed.

By evening, the police and soldiers had erected spotlights and were digging by hand in Hroza. A couple stood nearby, hugging and watching, the woman held by her husband and crying against his shoulder. They said they were searching for the woman’s father-in-law but had not found him.

The dead were put in white plastic body bags and placed at a children’s playground, beside a swing set and slide. Eventually, they were loaded into a green military truck.

When the bed of the truck was filled with body bags, an older driver climbed in, inched the truck past the leveled building and onto the street, and drove away.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, David Guttenfelder from Hroza and Eric Nagourney from New York. Reporting was contributed by Monika Pronczuk, Riley Mellen, Constant Méheut, Cassandra Vinograd, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Malachy Browne.

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