Confusion, fear, anguish as Russian school hostage crisis comes to terrifying climax

Friday, September 3rd 2004, 6:16 am
By: News On 6

BESLAN, Russia (AP) _ Under a grove of pine and spruce trees, the children were lying on stretchers _ dazed, shaken, fragile, and bloodied. Parents hugged them tenderly, cried softly, gave them water. They were safe.

Only moments earlier, the same children had been at the center of a maelstrom of explosions and bullets, of shattered windows, bodies and masonry _ a mind-bending cauldron of bloodshed that brought Russia's hostage crisis to a head Friday and left more than 150 people dead.

At first, there was only confusion _ for the victims, for the families, and for the millions of horrified spectators around the world.

To the beat of a sickening rattle of gunfire, blood-smeared girls stripped down to their underwear fled the school gymnasium where they had been kept captive _ a scene chillingly evocative of the iconic image of a naked girl screaming in pain and terror as she runs from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.

``We didn't know if we were going to live,'' said Aslan Zaratsov, a 14-year-old boy who had been kept captive _ hungry, thirsty, and sleepless _ for three days in the gymnasium along with several hundred other hostages in stifling heat no doubt made intolerable by the close concentration of bodies.

It was 1 p.m. when the horror of uncertainty ended so abruptly. But the ensuing minutes were replaced only by the horror of violence.

The fast-moving events Friday began when the hostage takers invited emergency workers to take away the dead. Explosions went off, which hostages took as a signal to flee. Their captors sent bullets whizzing after them.

In the chaos that ensued, ambulances spirited away bodies _ the windows of the vehicles stained with streaks of blood.

Hundreds of people ran through the streets, columns of smoke soared overhead and the wailing of children filled the air. Women fainted as they fled the smoke-belching brick building.

Russian authorities estimated that the death toll of more than 150 people will rise. More than 400 people were wounded. Local media reported that many of the victims were apparently killed when the gymnasium's roof collapsed, leaving a jagged opening to the sky.

At a hospital about a mile from the school, anguished crowds mobbed arriving ambulances in a desperate bid to see who was inside. One weeping men led away a young boy muddied, bleeding and only wearing underpants.

Ruslan Pukhayev said his 7-year-old grandson Gennady was slightly wounded in the left shoulder by an explosion.

The boy sat on a stretcher dipping a biscuit into some warm sweet tea. The grandfather hovered above him.

``It's incredible. Of course it's amazing,'' the old man said. ``The whole thing is horrible for him. The whole thing happened before his very eyes. It will be years before he understands it. My god, who needed this?''