BROVARY, Kyiv Oblast —The smell of smoke was still in the air in Brovary, a city just east of Kyiv, hours after a helicopter crashed on a local kindergarten on the morning of Jan. 18.
First responders and law enforcement were bustling around the charred building, where just recently preschoolers were flocking to start a regular day. Metal pieces of debris, some painted with the Ukrainian military vehicle pixel camouflage, were scattered everywhere on the muddy playground.
As first responders were clearing out the debris, a group of volunteers was helping survivors and grieving relatives in the nearby school, which was quickly transformed into a shelter.
Around the corner, a man was crying his heart out, constantly keeping his eyes on the scene. He was in too much pain to talk to journalists.
The man is reportedly local resident Oleksandr Ponomarenko. A woman who said she was an acquaintance of his family, wrote on Instagram that Ponomarenko lost a daughter and a wife due to the crash. He reportedly has another daughter.
The incident killed 14 people, including one child, according to the State Emergency Service. The victims include all nine people that were aboard the helicopter, including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky, the ministry’s top leadership and other employees, and emergency service personnel.
The crash also injured 25 people, including 11 children, the State Emergency Service reported at around 4 p.m., after the search and rescue operations were completed.
Brovary is a city with a pre-war population of over 100,000 people, located just east of Kyiv.
Witnessing and helping
Most local residents appeared to be in a state of shock after the crash, with many refusing to talk to the media.
Lida Herasina, 65, a resident of the apartment building standing in front of the kindergarten, says she wasn’t scared until she realized what had happened.
“We heard a really loud sound and then saw that the helicopter fell, there was fire, and everything was in smoke,” she told the Kyiv Independent.
After coming to her senses, Herasina started to help others by sheltering some evacuated children at her home, she said.
“I live on the second floor, I took more than 10 children to my flat because they didn’t have any coats, and some teachers brought them (children),” Herasina said.
The biggest part of what was left from the helicopter was covering the entrance of a residential building in front of the kindergarten, while chunks of metal hanging from the facade had destroyed a car parked outside.
The entrance of the apartment building is where dozens of law enforcement officers flocked to document the aftermath of the tragedy and take testimonies from locals.
Anton Pryschepko, a 16-year-old living nearby, was among those who witnessed the crash.
“My friend lives here,” he said, pointing at the building. “I saw bright light and an explosion, there was a lot of smoke and lots of people,” Pryschepko told the Kyiv Independent.
“As I understand, the helicopter fell, maybe something happened to the pilot,” Pryschepko said.
Yuriy Ihnat, the spokesman of Ukraine's Air Force, said that it was too early to determine the cause of the crash, adding that the incident has to be investigated.
According to Ihnat, the crashed helicopter was an AS.332 Super Puma model provided by France. It’s still unclear if the helicopter had a black box and if it was collected by law enforcement.
The group aboard the helicopter was heading to a “hot spot” of Russia’s war, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the President's Office.
“The pain is unspeakable,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Jan. 18, adding he had instructed authorities to find out about the circumstances of the crash.
Later in the day, Zelensky told the World Economic Forum in Davos that ”it was not an accident” because war “had many dimensions, not only on the battlefield,” and the crash had been caused by war.
During a briefing at the crash scene, Tymoshenko said that some of the hospitalized victims were on life support.
“One person working in the kindergarten got bad burns,” Pryschepko said, adding that none of his friends had been wounded in the crash.
“I feel sorry for the kids,” he added. “I’m fine, but I feel sorry for people.”
Surviving children had been evacuated from the building quickly after the crash, he said, as emergency services continued to search for anyone remaining trapped under the rubble.
The first responders were assisted by rescue dogs and a massive bulldozer grabbing black concrete slabs from the kindergarten roof. Search and rescue operations were completed by 3:45 p.m.
Across the street, children were playing around young parents, in an eerie contrast with the crash site only a few meters away.
On the other side of the street, a funeral service truck was waiting near a gray residential building.
A few minutes later, a stretcher holding a black body bag emerged from the site, soon to be swallowed by the truck parked nearby, waiting for another body to be brought to the morgue.
Meanwhile, locals started to mass near the red and white ribbons isolating the scene, bringing flowers, plush toys, and candles, and setting up improvised altars for the victims.
Note from the author:
Hello, this is Alexander Query. Some mornings are harder than others, even in a country at war. This morning was one of them. And yet, it’s part of our mission at the Kyiv Independent to tell you about the pain and tragedy Ukraine is going through on a daily basis. This is also why it’s crucial to support journalism in such times, to help us shed light on even the worst of times. Consider supporting us on Patreon to help us fulfill this mission.