First and only responders: Ukrainian firefighters at the front

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday, Serhii Moskalets woke up to the sound of a boom. Moments later, his phone rang, as he knew. For the fire chief of a city bombarded by Russian artillery, restful nights were one of the first casualties of war.

“I usually wake up around this time even when it’s quiet,” Moskalets said. “That’s when they tend to hit us.”

This time it was a rocket ship, the dispatcher said. A building on Torska Street was hit: several floors on fire; massive structural damage. People were inside.

In peacetime, the work of the Sloviansk fire brigade was largely limited to grass fires in the surrounding countryside and kitchen and garbage can fires typical of a city of 100,000 people.

Now Moskalets has begun to adjust to its new normal: burning blocks, collapsing buildings, massive casualties. His team has responded to more than 250 such events since June, when Russian artillery began targeting the city as part of Moscow’s effort to take control of most of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. After a brutal barrage in July, her crews were battling 10 major fires at once.

Firefighters are generally considered non-combatants under the rules of war – Moskalets said they never carry arms to comply with the Geneva Conventions – but departments like his are completely engulfed in the battle for Ukraine. The workload is huge, the shifts are endless, and already dangerous work must now be done under combat conditions.

“They rush to the places where the Russian missiles hit within moments of landing, and don’t even wait for the air raid sirens to stop,” said Vadim Lyakh, head of Sloviansk’s military administration.

As Moskalets donned protective gear that still smelled of smoke from the latest disaster, his battalion’s first engine stopped some distance from the three-storey block of flats near the city center, a fire visible in the back corner. Serhii Chaban, the team’s field supervisor, jumped down, checked that no one needed immediate first aid and began scanning the area.

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Normally, the truck would get closer, faster. But wartime protocol now dictates that they look for hazards, such as shrapnel that could shred a tire and make a quick evacuation impossible, or something worse.

“Our biggest concern is unexploded ordnance,” Moskalets said, “We found cluster bombs, ballistic rockets. We can’t get too close.

Their other fear is a second attack, the so-called “double whammy” that strikes after first responders arrive on the scene. A few weeks ago, this same battalion was putting out a fire started by artillery on the outskirts of town when another shell landed less than 500 feet away.

“They are targeting us,” Moskalets said. “It’s hard to hide a fire truck.”

Six area firefighters have been killed and 23 injured since the start of the invasion, according to Donetsk regional emergency services. The fire station in the hard-hit town of Bakhmut had its windows blown out and its garage doors ripped apart by a shell on Thursday morning, one of at least 14 fire rescue buildings damaged by attacks in the area.

At the scene, some of the men began pulling hoses from a fire truck. A firefighter drove a hydraulic wedge into the warped entrance door to an adjacent section of the building, freeing it. Five residents who had been trapped inside rushed out into the cool morning air.

Other firefighters interviewed the crowd of neighbors and locals gathered nearby to learn more about the building. At least three people lived in the section that was hit, they were told, two on the third floor and one on the ground floor. Most of these apartments were now part of the burning pancake of collapsed beams and rafters in the basement. The chances of survival were minimal.

“We still have hope,” Moskalets said.

The crew proceeded in the same way, whether it was a rescue or a recovery. The fire had to be extinguished first.

But water is a problem in a beleaguered city. The municipal supply dries up when electricity is cut off by bombing, and one of the firefighters’ new jobs is transporting water from the sewage treatment plant to 80 plastic tanks the government has placed around the city .

Now their tanker supplied their pipes. By the time the sun was above the rooftops, the flames were extinguished and the most dangerous work could begin.

The crew stared at the tilted pieces of concrete and brick that stood above the cavity where they would be working for the next few hours. Three of the four beams supporting the upper floors had been destroyed. Firefighters needed the last one to hold on.

Moskalets, whose wife and daughters long ago left Sloviansk for the safety of Dnipro, repeated one of his favorite phrases: “Who else is going to do it?”

By 10 a.m., a crane belonging to the city’s water department had backed up to the edge of the smoking crater. Moskalets, Chaban and three others jumped into the blackened pit to begin reverse engineering the collapse. Transmitting signals to the crane operator, they attached the cables to one massive section of concrete and rebar after another, ducking to one side as the crushing loads swung overhead.

It’s not a skill they learned in training, and sometimes the beams slip, said Edic Kravchuk, the crane operator. He too has seen his job change in recent months, from laying water pipes to unpacking disaster areas.

“The main thing is how they attach the load,” Kravchuk said. “Sometimes I have to jump up and show them.”

By noon, they had lifted over a dozen pieces from the hole. Other firefighters jumped in to shovel muddy soot and remove smaller debris. One of them was pulling at a pinned blanket.

“Misha, move all the stuff where you’re standing to the side, where that blanket is,” one said, crouching near a concrete slab. “Can we somehow hang the cable here?”

The hooks fell off and the men gave Kravchuk a boost for the lift. But suddenly they yelled at him to stop. The cables were shaking. The crew fell silent. Kravchuk killed the crane engine.

The 58-year-old had left the area earlier in the invasion, police said, declining to identify the victim by name. He had recently returned to Sloviansk to collect some of his belongings, to become one of at least 22 townspeople killed by Russian strikes so far.

It would take three more hours to uncover the bodies of the other two residents, a total of 12 hours of dangerous effort before firefighters could return to their posts.

Where showers and electricity were unreliable and their families were only visions on a screen, they would wait for the next call.

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