KREMENCHUK, Ukraine — For Lyudmila Mykhailets, it was a simple trip to the mall with her husband, Nikolai, to check the prices of a new blender at the Comfy.ua store. In an instant it turned into something horrific.
She ignored an air raid siren that went off as they entered the Amstor shopping complex in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine on Monday afternoon, assuming she would soon raid and find the prize. She was talking to a store clerk when a 2,000-pound Russian rocket landed on the mall not far from where she was standing.
“And then I remember I was flying,” Ms Mykhailets said in an interview on Tuesday morning as she lay in a hospital bed in Kremenchuk. “I flew over somewhere. My whole body was beaten, everywhere, and shards fell on me.”
By the time she landed, two pieces of debris had fallen on her and she called her husband for help. He had fallen unconscious. Mrs. Mykhailets’ arm was broken and dangling to the side.
“Given what happened there, we came out fine,” she said. Her mouth and face were covered in scars and stitches. “We survived.”
She was lucky. As rescuers combed through the rubble of the mall on Tuesday morning, the city’s mayor said the death toll from the rocket attack had risen to 18. He announced three days of mourning.
The strike was the latest example of Russia’s persistence in carrying out indiscriminate attacks on civilians on non-military targets.
About 25 people had been hospitalized after the strike and 21 were still missing, Dmytro Lunin, the governor of the Poltava region, said at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon. Rescue workers were still digging through the rubble, he added, but it would be impossible for anyone else to be found alive.
Hundreds had been to the mall. About 60 people had sought medical help, the mayor, Vitaliy Maletskiy, wrote on Facebook. At the hospital where Ms Mykhailets was treated, five people were in critical condition, according to the chief physician, Oksana Korlyakova.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
In the gutted remains of the Comfy store lay the remains of household appliances—a set of pot lids and the metal part of an immersion blender, the kind Mrs. Mykhailets was looking for. Children’s parties were scattered nearby. Amstor had the largest children’s play center in Kremenchuk.
Nine people died in the Comfy store, authorities said, because the rocket hit nearby.
“The fire spread in a few minutes, almost immediately,” said Oleksandr Lysenko, deputy head of the main directorate of the state emergency service in the Poltava region, as workers continued to search for the missing. Everything around him at the back of the mall was destroyed except for a few packets of bird food from the pet store that had been there.
“There was no chance for people to escape.”
Mr Mykhailets said he was lucky as he regained consciousness after a water pipe exploded above him.
“I woke up to the fact that water was dripping on me,” he said from his hospital bed. His head and legs were connected. “It was broken pipes. Without the water I might have been burned alive. I remember laying there feeling like, ‘Oh yeah, pour on me.’”
He crawled out from under the rubble and worked to free his wife from the plate.
“There was so much smoke and fire,” he said. “People were crying, screaming, running. Some were just under the plates. I saw a few heads and hands sticking out from below.”
Ukraine’s Supreme Prosecutor Irina Venediktova arrived on the scene Tuesday with a team of investigators to collect evidence about the attack, which was a “war crime” under Ukrainian law.
The prosecutor denounced what she described as the “systematic shelling of civilian infrastructure: hospitals, kindergartens, shopping centers as you see here.”
“I am sure that the Russians know very well that they are killing civilians,” Ms. Venediktova added. “It’s not news to them, but they do it over and over.”
Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that it had struck Kremenchuk with what it described as “precision missiles”. But it said the targets were depots of ammunition for weapons systems supplied by the United States and European countries, and that an ammunition explosion had set the mall on fire.
The claims could not be independently verified, and Ukraine’s interior minister said at a briefing for journalists that “there is no military object within a three-mile radius.”
A second missile hit an industrial facility behind the mall that produced materials for road repair, according to Ukrainian authorities, who said the factory had served no military purpose.
A woman who worked in the factory said the same thing.
“Almost nothing happened there,” said the woman, Margarita Svyatobog, 58, when interviewed nearby. She had waited for the war to end so she could get back to work.
“I’ve worked in that factory almost all my life, and now I’m out of a job,” she added, tearfully.
Authorities said the weapons that hit both the factory and the mall were old Soviet X-22 missiles weighing about 2,000 pounds.
In a small park adjacent to the mall, a makeshift memorial had been set up of 16 vases filled with flowers — one for each of the 16 victims initially announced Monday night. Gloomy visitors lit candles for the dead.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed in an evening video address that the strike was deliberate. “This is not an accidental hit – this is a calculated Russian attack,” he said.
This was the sixth and deadliest Russian rocket attack on Kremenchuk, an industrial city with a pre-war population of 217,000. While some residents have left, many displaced persons have arrived from other cities that suffered from heavy bombing, such as Kharkov and Mariupol.
Among those injured in Monday’s strike was Yulia, 22, who had fled from Kharkov to Kremenchuk with her mother. They previously lived in Luhansk, a city occupied by Moscow-backed separatists in 2014.
Yulia and her mother, Larisa, had fled to Kharkov at the beginning of the war and again to Kremenchuk two months ago because of heavy shelling in Kharkov. Yulia had found a job selling cell phones at the mall.
“We hoped we would be safe here,” said Larisa, who, like her daughter, was uncomfortable sharing her last name. “This is a deep trauma to my soul.”
In the hours following the strike, pro-Moscow news outlets and social media outlets were quick to dismiss the attack as organized by the Ukrainians.
“I want the world to know that this is not fake,” Larisa said as she visited her daughter in the hospital. “People have suffered, and it’s very scary.”
Mr. Mykhailets, a white bandage wrapped around his head, his face, arms and legs scarred and wounded, still trying to understand what had happened.
“I understand the reasons for hitting the infrastructure, for breaking the power plants and gas stations,” he said. “But going to the mall is absurd. There were many children there. There is a children’s playground near Comfy. That’s where the strike struck.”
Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kiev, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tblisi, Georgia.