DNIPRO, Ukraine (AP) — Before the Russian missile struck the apartment building next door, Anna Kotova had moved closer to the window to take a congratulatory 19th birthday call from her sister.
Kotova’s boyfriend staggered into the kitchen after the explosion and found her covered in blood. The blast at the neighboring building blew out windows and doors in her apartment, and a shard of glass had pierced one of the young woman’s eyes. Another just barely missed a major artery on her neck.
“Thankfully, she was alive,” Denys Kryvulia, 24, said, recalling the first moments after the deadliest single attack on Ukrainian civilians since the spring.
The death toll from the Saturday afternoon strike in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro reached at least 45 people, including six children, officials said. Kotova was among at least 79 people injured; doctors had to remove her eye, and she remains hospitalized.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine almost 11 months ago, many Ukrainians had fled to Dnipro, a city with a prewar population of nearly 1 million located about 485 kilometers (301 miles) southeast of Kyiv. It seemed relatively safe compared to other areas in Ukraine’s war-torn east. Wounded Ukrainian soldiers are routinely transferred from the frontlines to Dnipro hospitals for treatment.
The nine-story apartment tower that took the direct hit housed about 1,700 residents and stood in between two identical buildings. Emergency crews worked nonstop for three days to search the wreckage for the dead and missing.
The intense stench of burning still emanates from the site at 119 Naberezhna Peremohy, although the search crews finished combing the debris Tuesday. Volunteers at multiple aid points set up in the area are distributing food, clothes and plastic sheeting to keep out the cold until shattered windows can be repaired.
About 400 people lost their homes, with 72 apartments completely destroyed and another 236 severely damaged, according to the Dnipro City Council. While the city had experienced power outages from attacks on infrastructure, the civilian deaths and damage has demoralized residents, who feel there is no longer a place to hide from the terrors of war.
“I wake up with a feeling of mourning,” Valeria Murchych said while visiting the blast site to lay the flowers. In her pockets, she carried the sedatives she has taken with her everywhere since Saturday to help her cope, Murchych said.
On Wednesday afternoon, mourners gathered in front of a small church not far from the destroyed building. Relatives, neighbors and friends came to say goodbye to a couple, Maksym and Nataliia Shvets, that died under the rubble.
“They are heroes of Ukraine because, in their peaceful life, they suffered for the whole country,” Vitalii Lopushanskyi, an Orthodox priest, said during the memorial service.
The couple’s daughter, Anastasiia Shvets, 23, accepted hugs from dozens of people wanting to support her after the loss of both her parents. A photograph of Shvets that went viral, taken Saturday when she was trapped on an upper floor, showed her with her hands over her mouth, stunned.
Her mother and father were in the kitchen of the family’s apartment when the missile hit. There is nothing left of it now.
“I have no words, I have no emotions, I feel nothing but a great emptiness inside,” she wrote on Instagram shortly after emergency workers rescued her from the smoldering ruins. Shvets wrote that she still was grieving the death of another loved one, a soldier, who died on the battlefield months ago.
While Dnipro tried to recover, an emergency services helicopter crashed in the suburbs of Kyiv on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people. The victims included Ukraine’s interior minister and three children, and the crash compounded the grief from Saturday’s deadly strike.
Kotova had planned an intimate birthday gathering with her close friends and boyfriend. The couple fled the Luhansk province city of Sievierodonetsk the day Russia invaded Ukraine to take refuge in what they believed was the relative safety of Dnipro. Russia eventually seized Siervierodonetsk in June.
“We lived an ordinary life. It was a calm life,” said Kryvulia, Kotova’s boyfriend.
He is looking after her in the hospital where she is recovering from her severe wounds, including her lost eye. Glass pierced the entire length of her body. She plans to make her way to Poland for plastic surgery and more treatment.
Through her pain, Kotova has asked Kryvulia if he will leave her.
“But why should I leave her? Because her body is mutilated?” he said. “This won’t make me love her any less.”
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