U.S. Hostage Sought to Hide Her Identity

Natalya Aleshnya was enjoying the music when the rebels stormed in. She was seated in a balcony seat next to her oldest son and happy to be back in her homeland watching the tale of the Arctic explorers in "Nord Ost."

"We do not want your deaths,'' one of the terrorists announced. "We want only for Russia to allow Chechnya to be independent.''

A man seated near her, an official with the Russian intelligence service, immediately hid his identification so as not to provoke the terrorists into targeting him. Thinking of her U.S. passport, Aleshnya also decided that was a good idea.

She didn't have it with her anyway, and she determined to conceal from the terrorists that she was a U.S. citizen. Her son, 38, is Russian and she did not want to be released if he had to remain.

Besides, she added, "I am an old woman." There were other people, including someone with epilepsy and two pregnant women, who deserved to be freed before her, she said.

Aleshnya, 64, a retired piano teacher who lives in California, was in town visiting her two sons and two grandchildren when she was taken hostage. She spoke by phone Sunday afternoon from her bed in City Hospital No. 1, minutes before she talked to U.S. consular officials.

The U.S. Embassy is still trying to get information about another American, 49-year-old Sandy Booker, who was with his fiancee, a Kazakh national, and also seeking to determine whether a third American was in the theater. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said that a body believed to be that of an American killed in the siege had been located.

Sounding calm but disoriented, Aleshnya said she felt very weak and that she could not walk and did not know when or if she would be able to again. She was being fed intravenously. Her face was red, as if it was sunburned.

Her doctor, who described her condition as "not very grave," said he did not believe the redness was from heat but might have been a side effect of the gas used to subdue the terrorists.

Aleshnya said she was still "confused" about all the time she spent in the theater but one thing she was clear about were the bombs that were scattered throughout the theater, especially two big ones. There was one in the middle of the balcony and another in the orchestra area, which the terrorists said were powerful enough to "blow everything from here to Taganrog," a city about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

"We were praying the troops wouldn't storm in. We thought the whole building would collapse and we would all die," Aleshnya said.

She remembered being asleep when the gas seeped in. She was startled to hear gunfire but fell back into unconsciousness. The next thing she knew she was in the hospital.

"I didn't come to for a long time, but now I'm beginning to understand things,'' Aleshnya said.