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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saving Trapped Cats, Vagrants and Babushkas

ST. PETERSBURG -- When a nine-story apartment building looked like it was about to collapse in June, St. Petersburg turned to its first line of defense -- its emergency rescue service.

The rescue service was first on the scene at Dvinskaya Ulitsa, where a huge crack in one of the walls threatened to bring the apartment block down. It took rescuers and firefighters half an hour to clear the building, which disintegrated almost immediately after they had evacuated the last elderly woman from inside.

Because of the city's crumbling infrastructure, members of the St. Petersburg Emergency Rescue Service are no strangers to such large-scale disasters.

Most of their work, however, is a little more run of the mill.

When elderly people or children get locked in apartments alone, when a cat can't climb down from a high tree or when homeless people get stuck in ventilation shafts, rescue service workers are the ones called to help.

"[Homeless people] often fall into ventilation shafts -- that can be a big problem," said Yury Demyanov, head of one of the service's four teams, which work in shifts.

Demyanov said homeless people often live in attics and use ventilation shafts, when accessible, as toilets. Sometimes they fall in.

"We can't simply lift them out because of the bends in the shafts," Demyanov said. "So when people tell us that someone is calling for help from inside their ventilation system ... we tell them we'll have to break through the wall in their bathroom or toilet to free the unlucky person."

One rescue worker told a hard-luck story of how, when he was pulling a homeless woman out of a ventilation shaft, she vomited in his face. Although he personally did not catch anything from the woman, he said that lice spread from her to his team, who spent a day getting rid of the insects.

Formed in April 2000, the St. Petersburg Emergency Rescue Service is made up of 30 people, all of whom had to pass a thorough psychological test demonstrating that they can make clear, rational decisions under pressure.

Besides having general rescue skills, every member of the team has his own specialty. Demyanov, for example, used to work as a firefighter. Nikolai Mamayev was a mountain climber and Stanislav Khopyorsky was a professional driver.

Before the city set up its own service, St. Petersburg relied on the Northwest Emergency Service, which was responsible for rescue work all over northwestern Russia. Sergei Sysoyev, deputy head of the St. Petersburg Emergency Rescue Service, said it quickly became apparent that St. Petersburg needed a rescue service of its own. "The need for our type of service has definitely increased in Russia recently," Sysoyev said. "It has to do with the increasing number of catastrophes caused by our worn-out infrastructure. Most Russian equipment, machines and buildings are getting old, but the country still doesn't have sufficient finances to replace or restore them."

The disaster at Dvinskaya Ulitsa on June 3 was a case in point. First on the scene, the emergency rescue service was also the last to leave after finally clearing the ruins four days later.

"We worked in shifts for four hours, and nobody went home during those four days," Demyanov said.

Thankfully, most of the rescuers' work is less harrowing -- sometimes even comical.

Demyanov told how a neighbor of an old woman once called the rescue service after she heard the babushka, who lived in the apartment above her, crying for help. The old woman was able to hammer on her ceiling but couldn't open her door. "In the end, we had to climb into the apartment through the window," Demyanov said.

When a rescuer clambered in through the window, the desperate babushka moaned, "Oh, archangel!"

It turned out that the woman, who was on crutches, had been locked in by her daughter, who visited her only once every three days to bring her food.

Another time, officials at a St. Petersburg mental asylum called the service when a stray cat climbed a tree and kept meowing loudly. "They said the cat's meows were agitating the most impulsive patients," rescuer Leonid Binkovsky said. "So we gave them a hand and brought the cat down from the tree."

One of the more unpleasant jobs the rescue service has to perform is recovering the corpses of drowned people, a chore that gives rise to some black humor. "My favorite drowned men wear jeans fastened with a good-quality belt," Mamayev said.

If the corpses have been in the water for a long time and have started to decompose or if they have no clothes on them, they are harder to recover, rescuers said.

Another common job is helping victims of automobile accidents. In these scenarios, Demyanov said, rescuers are often hampered by members of the public who make the mistake of trying to help people in serious car crashes themselves. "If a person is trapped in the car and has neck or spinal injuries, people who try to pull him out of the car may kill him or make his injuries even more severe," he said. "Instead of moving the injured person, they should try to support him. That's why, before we extract a road-crash victim, we first take the vehicle apart around him."

The rescuers said that, on average, they receive three to five calls a day. In most cases they can help, but they complained that the service has only 15 percent of the equipment it needs.

For example, even though they work with population groups that are likely to be carrying infectious diseases, the rescuers are not vaccinated against hepatitis and do not even have rubber gloves.

"We don't have breathing equipment, wetsuits for underwater work or a big rescue crane," Sysoyev said. "Even worse, we have only one emergency vehicle. First of all, one car is not enough for this big of a city. Second, it will wear out quickly."

The St. Petersburg Emergency Rescue Service is run by the city's civil defense and emergency situations department. While the Northwest Federal District's emergency service is financed from the federal budget, the St. Petersburg team is paid for by the city budget, from which it receives paltry sums.

"It seems the city administration doesn't quite realize that St. Petersburg needs a very strong emergency service because the city's older buildings and infrastructure are getting worse by the day," Sysoyev said.

He said St. Petersburg needs at least five rescue teams located in different parts of the city or, at the very least, one more team on the north bank of the Neva.

"In an emergency, speed is the most important thing," Sysoyev said. "But sometimes it takes us about 40 minutes to get to the spot because of the distance and traffic jams."

As rescuers embarked on a recent assignment, however, traffic jams did not seem to slow their progress too much.

Khopyorsky switched on a siren and drove against opposing traffic as cars hurriedly swerved out of the way.

"Our enemies are the drivers of old, Russian-made cars," Khopyorsky said. "It seems they don't care about the condition of their cars anymore and may not give way.

"The most helpful drivers are those of posh, foreign-made cars," he said.

As the service's Gazel van made its way to the site of the emergency, the team put on rescue gear and helmets. They seemed to enjoy the buzz.

"We work here mostly because we like this line of work. It's not for the money," Binkovsky said. The rescuers earn $130 a month.