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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FROM UNDER THE RUBBLE




Vladimir Legoshin picks up the charred remains of another victim of the overnight blaze and stuffs them into two plastic bags that quickly steam up from lingering heat. He and his colleagues from Tsentrospas, the central airmobile detachment of the Emergency Situations Ministry, have been sifting through the rubble of the demolished Samara police headquarters building for 23 hours. They have not - and would not - find anyone alive from the February fire that killed more than 60 people.


It's 10:30 p.m., 53 hours since the fire broke out. Twenty-nine bodies are already in the morgue, many of them charred beyond recognition. Another 42 are still missing.


A man in a yellow, fire-resistant coat screams, "We found one more," into his radio, and Legoshin rushes to the scene where a young woman in a fluffy white scarf - the local medical examiner - is running her gloved hand along a blackened torso found pressed into the remains of a metal desk. As Legoshin helps lift the legless torso a piece of the victim's blackened backbone falls off and the roomis filled with the scent of burned flesh.


"The ashes of human flesh smell the same as charred wood," says Legoshin, explaining later why they could not use rescue dogs to locate victims. Red-eyed and exhausted, Legoshin lit a cigarette with his shaking hands.


Legoshin's weary words belie the passion that has kept him a rescue worker since 1988, when a massive earthquake struck the town of Leninakan, Armenia, killing 25,000. Like many youths from the then Soviet Union, Legoshin and his twin brother Andrei, now the director of Tsentrospas, rushed to the site to volunteer with relief efforts. Government rescue organizations back then were unprepared to deal with a disaster of such magnitude and had made an appeal to all citizens to help.


For today's elite corps of rescue workers, the earthquake in Leninakan was a turning point in their careers. Working alongside international crews, the Soviet volunteers were stunned at the professionalism and sophisticated equipment used by their foreign counterparts. While the foreign rescue workers had special tools to remove rubble and dogs to sniff for humans, the Soviets had heavy bulldozers that were useless on the fragile, ravaged terrain.


"We were not rescuers back then. We were diggers," recalls Kirill Borodin, who signed up along with six friends from his hiking club at his local Komsomol office after hearing the call for help on television.


The bitter experience in Armenia prompted the government to create in 1990 the Russian Corps of Rescuers, which eventually became the Emergency Situations Ministry, or MChS. The ministry outshines its other government counterparts in popularity, efficiency and lack of corruption. It routinely dispatches workers on international rescue missions and humanitarian aid programs. MChS workers are sometimes contracted out to international organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the World Health Organization. In other instances, such as after January's earthquake in Colombia, the MChS donates its services. The ministry sent 70 rescue workers, a portable hospital and a plane to aid Colombia's devastated city of Armenia, which cost Russia $200,000.


The elite among the elite of the MChS are the members of Tsentrospas, the unit created of rescue workers, engineers and doctors that fly all over the world in response to natural and man-made disasters. Among the 75 Tsentrospas rescuers are some of the idealistic youths who raced to the 1988 Armenia earthquake site, like the Legoshin brothers and Borodin and his hiking friends. Since its establishment, Tsentrospas rescuers have been involved in relief efforts in wars in and around Russia, as well as in other parts of the world. They evacuated 2,089 people from Tkvarcheli, a small Abkhazian town that was under siege for more then six months during the ethnic conflict in Georgia. They assisted victims of an earthquake in Afghanistan, delivered humanitarian aid to cities in war-torn Bosnia and organized refugee camps in Africa during the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. In 1994, they evacuated Russian citizens from the epicenter of the civil war in Yemen.


Tsentrospas attracts wild adventure-seekers. Some rescuers came to Tsentrospas after serving in the special forces. Most are serious mountaineers and travelers. Leonid Martynov, 47, the oldest member of the rescue unit, is one of Russia's most experienced alpinists and the only person to fly on a homemade hang glider off the 7,495-meter-high Communism Peak, the highest mountain in the former Soviet Union. A paragliding accident a few years ago did not bring to an end that activity for Martynov, and he still climbs mountains and scuba dives, often taking his daughter with him. "She is totally fearless," Martynov says. "I built her a tiny glider when she turned 4. Now, at 11, she goes deep sea diving. ... She even saved my life once, when I was running out of oxygen in the Black Sea."


For many rescuers, their risky job is just an extension of their adrenaline-laden lives. Last year, Andrei Rozhkov, former Tsentrospas director, died at the North Pole. He was diving 50 meters deep in the Arctic Ocean to test new diving equipment. Rozhkov took up diving after he broke his spine in a 1995 accident.The rescue process itself is usually one adrenaline-filled rush. Alexei Kiyashko, a former firefighter who joined Tsentrospas six years ago, remembers one mission in particular during the war in Chechnya. In February 1995, Atyana, a teenager from Grozny, was struck by shrapnel that injured her spine. The rescuers had to transport her to their field hospital a mountain ridge away. "The road up and down the ridge was destroyed by the tanks," Kiyashko says. "But because of Atyana's wounds, she had to lie on a firm surface, and you could not shake her."


For the entire stretch of the bumpy mountain road, six Tsentrospas men sat facing each other in an armored troop carrier, holding Atyana on a heavy oak door that Atyana's father had removed from his home. "We were just holding her like this, on the palms of our hands for hours," he says, outstretching his arms with his palms facing upward. "No one was looking at the time. Generally, in the emergency zones, the time goes by by itself. And you, you are by yourself."


"They all are romantics, they all are people with insanely pure souls," says Marina Ryklina, spokeswoman for the MChS. "We love them madly, but we don't pay." Indeed, the MChS hasn't been exempt from the budget cuts affecting all government branches. During the last four years, Tsentrospas' overall budget has remained almost unchanged at 15.5 million rubles which by this year has dwindled to $637,000. But within that, the portion allocated to purchase equipment has declined to one fifth of its amount in 1995, and last year, the budget for purchasing equipment was reduced in half. Meanwhile, the rescue unit has had to cut spending by decreasing the number of training flights and foregoing some equipment maintenance. Rescuers have not received new uniforms for several years and still wear the jumpsuits they shredded working at the site of a 1996 apartment building explosion in Kaspiisk, a city on the Caspian Sea.


With the average monthly salary at Tsentrospas hovering at 2,600 rubles (a little over $100), rescue workers have to make ends meet by taking on other jobs during their days off each month. Often they work for the city, washing windows, pruning trees and knocking icicles off buildings. When working on assignment, rescuers get an extra 22 rubles (91 cents) a day for expenses. "And what is that when a pack of normal cigarettes costs about 25 rubles?" says Andrei Legoshin.


Nevertheless, MChS has found money to build a shiny new headquarters for Tsentrospas in Zhukovsky. The 7,000 square-meter complex is expected to be completed by the end of this year.


Another good source of income for rescuers is work for international organizations such as the United Nations. The MChS contracts out its workers and demands pay on par with rescuers from other countries. Vladimir Legoshin earned $178 per day, for example, when he was delivering humanitarian aid in Bosnia. During his mission his car was hit by sniper fire - leaving eight bullet holes as a memento of his trip. He not only survived, but he returned home to buy a one-room apartment with his earnings.


The Tsentrospas headquarters are located in an old, gray brick fire station in Zhukovsky, a city 35 kilometers east of Moscow. The unit's rescue cargo planes and helicopters are based at the nearby Ramensky military airport. Five rescue teams take turns, spending two days on duty at the base, two days on call, and then six days off. Each team is comprised of 10 to 15 rescuers, two canine experts with dogs, a physician and two drivers. Tsentrospas also has a special team stationed in Moscow that specializes in emergencies in the city, ranging from saving suicidal people attempting to jump off buildings, lifting cars swallowed in sinkholes and clearing debris after disasters like the June 1998 hurricane that uprooted thousands of trees.


Parked at the headquarters is the Tsentrospas rescue vehicle that can leave the base in three minutes. The rescue car resembles a modern fire truck and carries special hydraulic cutters, drills, heavy-duty rubber inflatable pillows and other devices to lift concrete blocks, cut into vehicles or chunks of metal. The car also holds protective suits that allow workers to walk though acidic mud or survive temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees. The crew can load its rescue truck or specialized amphibious vehicles and take off on a special IL-76 cargo plane to any point in the country - or the globe, for that matter - within three hours.


While the rescuers can depart at any moment, much of their time is spent waiting in what the crew calls sindrom ozhidaniya, or expectation syndrome. During down time, the rescuers train: rappelling down a training tower, checking equipment, jumping off helicopters and running through a survival course; or they sit around in their slippers sipping tea, chain-smoking, exchanging tales of previous missions, or they play hockey in the front yard. They live in tiny, shared dorm rooms adorned with flowery Soviet wallpaper and eat in a cafeteria where the television set always seems to be blaring. When news of fire, explosions, mud slides or floods come on, the room freezes as the men wait to hear if the government has made a decision to send in their team.


Calls for major disasters sometimes come only a few times a year, and at other times nearly every week, as they did earlier this year. On January 6, Tsentrospas rescuers were in the Moscow River searching for arms and explosives. Two days later, a bus flipped over on a slippery road in Georgia, throwing passengers into a river. Rescuers waded into freezing waters and fished out bloated bodies. Three weeks later, a team flew to Colombia after the earthquake, and within two weeks, a crew was in Samara.


Tsentrospas members must pass a battery of psychological, medical and physical fitness tests to prove they are capable of working under such extreme conditions. Candidates are men over 21 years old, with either a college diploma or specialized skills such as firefighting. All applicants must have a working knowledge of a major foreign language. But the ultimate test is a six-month trial period during which the candidates are scrutinized for their stamina, emotional strength and ability to get along with others. "This is when the real test begins," says Kiyashko, the 34-year-old former firefighter.


In spite of the low pay, grueling hours and dangerous conditions, few who make the grade leave the service. Since it was formed in 1992, only ten rescuers have left Tsentrospas.


But they don't work for the money. They work for the rare occasions when they free someone alive from rubble, water or fire. "You tend to remember only the best moments," says Kiyashko. Many Tsentrospas members say one of their most memorable - and difficult - missions was on the Far Eastern island of Sakhalin after the 1995 earthquake. The unit landed in Neftegorsk, nearly a full day after the first jolts levelled the city to the ground, turning apartment buildings, stores, schools and kindergartens into heaps of broken brick, smashed concrete blocks and entangled steel beams. "The rubble is a chaotic mix of stones, cupboards, some sort of television sets, refrigerators," Vladimir Legoshin recalls. Among the population of 3,200, rescuers from Tsentrospas and other organizations eventually brought 2,149 people out from the rubble. Only 406 survived, including 40 children.


In Neftegorsk, for the first time, the rescuers used moments of silence. Every hour, for 15 minutes, all work was stopped, the engines of cranes and bulldozers turned off. Workers walked through the ghost town, shouting "Is there anyone alive left?"


Occasionally there were replies. A woman who lost two legs and two of her children to the earthquake survived and went on to give birth to another three children. A young boy, Vladimir Bespalenko, had to have a leg amputated, but lived. After the events, rescue workers sometimes hear news about survivors, but they usually don't seek them out. "If you were to spend three days laying naked in your bed, in your feces and squashed between collapsed walls before I came to take you out, would you like to see my face again?" Borodin says.


Sometimes rescuers meet the unexpected. In Neftegorsk, rescuers had to cut through a wardrobe, wading through a flood of clothes. When the flow of dresses subsided, they came face-to-face with an enormous jar of pickled whortleberries. In Colombia, after days of shoveling dirt and rubble out of buildings that had collapsed like a house of cards and finding only lifeless bodies, Igor Korneyev heard a sign of life. He emerged from the debris carrying two squealing kittens. His colleagues now call him "catman" and volunteer him for emergency calls to rescue cats stuck in trees.


But more often that not, rescuers confront death. Vladimir Legoshin remembers "a girl named Tanya" from Neftegorsk. "Her legs were squeezed in the rubble. She was 28. And for a long time, while we were freeing her, we talked to her about her favorite dresses," he says. Tanya died two hours after rescuers freed her. In the war in Chechnya, Tsentrospas evacuated 700 sick people and refugees and cared for about 250 people in their field hospital. On one of the color photos in Andrei Legoshin's album, a photo shows what resembles a shapeless blue bag hanging on the metal gates in front of a church. A shoe lies just below, on the ground. "This used to be a man," Andrei Legoshin says of the bag-like object. In Chechnya, amid the air strikes, a priest baptized several rescuers in a small church in Grozny. The priest was kidnapped and vanished.


"The notion of rescuing is desperately relative," Vladimir Legoshin says. "By salvaging the remains, we either increase or slightly diminish the suffering of the families." Among each other, the rescuers have dubbed their rescue plane aeromogilny or air graveyard.


Seeing so much death and pain does not pass without a trace. "Many of them drink," says MChS spokeswoman Ryklina. Indeed, some of the men take a drink to calm their nerves after a tough job. The government offers Tsentrospas members a program to help with work related stress, but few members use them. "They do not accept people from outside of their circle," Ryklina says.


"I just don't trust doctors," says Martynov, who at 47 is the oldest rescuer at Tsentrospas. The gap-toothed veteran also boasts among the largest number of injuries. A leg wound left him with a limp, and after medical treatment, one leg is shorter than the other. Martynov believes doctors were at fault.


The rescuers' personal lives - not just their bodies - are also marred by the demanding nature of the work. Rescuer Grigory Chukov's daughter was born while her father was flying off to Khabarovsk to search for "live cargo," or passengers, aboard a plane that had disappeared in the taiga. Borodin, one of the rescuers who got hooked on relief work after helping in the aftermath of the Armenian earthquake, points out that maintaining relationships is difficult when one is off on a two-month desert training expedition, then delivering humanitarian aid in Yugoslavia for several weeks and then flying to Crimea for a month of deep sea diving practice. "The girls don't like that," says the 32-year-old graduate of Moscow's Geological Explorations Institute.


But last year, there were fewer missions than usual, and some rescuers say that has made a difference. "We even had two weddings," Borodin says.


It's 5:20 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon at the Tsentrospas headquarters. A 1930s movie is showing on television. A meat grinder is squeaking in the kitchen.


A high-pitch wailing siren goes off. In a split second, the hallway fills with people running, changing shoes, pulling on vests and snatching helmets. Four rescuers and a doctor pack into therescue truck, the voice of the operator on duty at the base comes through on the radio: "Emergency landing. It's a cargo plane. Its engine failed."


The truck races to the Zhukovsky airport, its siren screaming. On two sides of the six kilometer-long runway - one of the longest in Europe - nearly 10 fire trucks are already waiting.


"Mir 856. It is an IL-76 cargo plane. It has between 10 and 15 tons of fuel on board. It will try to burn it off before landing," the operator continues. The men adjust their coats and jumpsuits and confirm their green-and-red-lamp flashlight is working. They expect a fire, after which they will cut into the plane to release the crew.


"It's Mir. It will take another two hours for the plane to burn off the fuel."


With that notice of some waiting time, the five men in the truck let out a breath. "This plane has four engines. Theoretically, it could be just fine landing even with just two of them working," says rescuer Vladimir Kretov who, before joining Tsentrospas, worked for an airline company. Settling in for a long wait, Borodin says, laughing: "Let me tell you about the time we were saving a horse that got stuck in a sewer manhole."


At 8:04 p.m., the cargo plane's signal lights appear in the black sky, and it speeds across the runway.


"Mir. Please call off the emergency," Chukov calls into the radio as his colleagues reminisce about the time they ran out of food for two weeks while they were wading through snow up to their necks in the taiga. "The plane just landed safely."