Friday, October 26, 2007

Five-year Flashback; or, How I Almost Became a Hostage


Five years ago this week, a Moscow theater crowded with an audience of over 800 people was taken over by 42 armed Chechen rebels. They held everyone in the building hostage for almost three days, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. In the meantime, they had mined the building with explosives and had bombs strapped to their bodies.

In one of those bizarre "close calls" that we all have at one time or another, Jeremy and I were supposed to be members of that audience, but by a twist of fate, we were safe at home. We'd made plans with a few friends to go see the play on that night, but the woman in charge of buying tickets for everyone got sick and ended up not getting any (the show was sold out on that Wednesday night).

We were living in Moscow at the time, working for the US Embassy. As far as I can remember, we were alerted to the situation by a call from the embassy warden not long after it happened. Since it was already late evening, we went to bed and woke up in the morning to hear more details on the local news.

The outlook was certainly grim. I remember going to work as usual and the mood on the streets was unbelievably tense. Personally, I couldn't see any way for the situation to be resolved without everyone being killed. And as the days went by, it looked more and more like that was what was going to happen.

Then, on the third day of the crisis, something happened* to trigger a storming of the building by Russian special forces. They pumped a mystery gas into the building through the ventilation system and then went in and eliminated all the hostage-takers. The hostages were evacuated, some on their own two feet and some carried out by the troops. In classic Russian style, the conscious and unconscious hostages were loaded onto common city buses recruited for the purpose and taken off to hospitals around Moscow. The images of all the above are clearly imprinted on my memory from watching local Russian news (completely uncensored, of course).

It took a while for casualty counts to reach us, but I will be honest and say that when we and fellow Muscovites first heard that "only" 129 of the 800+ hostages had been killed, there was an overwhelming feeling of relief that the number was so low. Everyone had been expecting a far higher death toll.

Of course, if you read anything about the hostage crisis now, that initial positive reaction is not mentioned. And in hindsight, it is not such a successful outcome - especially when we found out that most of those deaths were caused by the rescue gas, not the hostage-takers. But at the time, it was considered to be almost a miracle.

I think not attending the play that night was the closest call I've had in my life, at least that I know of (I'm convinced we all have many similar - if less dramatic or obvious - experiences almost every day).

What's yours?

*I can't find this referenced in any of the accounts online, but it was reported at the time that a child hostage started to have a breakdown after being without his parents for almost three days and threw a water bottle at a hostage-taker. The terrorist then opened fire and spurred the special forces into action.

9 comments:

Liz Johnson said...

Holy crap. I am immensely glad that ticket-getting lady got sick and is, presumably, now better. That is terrifying. I had no idea you were that close to that event... but I remember it vividly.

Bridget said...

Liz, were you in Romania at the time? Because I get the feeling that this event wasn't widely reported in America.

I think the only reason we were safe is because the people we were supposed to go with were the branch president (of our local Mormon, Russian congregation) and his wife. They couldn't be spared and so by default, neither could we. :)

Jason said...

Okay this is not related to international events or anything like that but a few weeks ago the kids and I were walking out of Walmart and while I was in the crosswalk the list I taken with me flew out of my pocket. I briefly paused to debate on whether I was just going to let it fly away or be a good citizen and pick it up. Just then a car swerved around the corner and passed my cart (holding Ezra and Grace) within an inch. The driver wasn't even looking at all and when she looked up and saw she'd almost hit us she freaked a bit. Had I not paused because of my list we for sure would have been in her path!

Jason said...

okay that was crystal...not Jason. I forgot I was on his thing.

The Ensign's said...

That is sooo scary..... I dont think I've ever had a close call like THAT!

Bridget said...

See, stuff like this happens all the time! And every once in a while, we notice it.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

That Moscow-Chechen incident still gives me the creeps, knowing how easily you could have been there. Someone a while back asked me to tell a third person about it and I said no--just didn't want to relive the possibilities.

Close calls happen occasionally to me, but not as close as what Crystal described. Yesterday while in the left turn lane a mile from home, the stoplight quit working for the street I was on. The cross street, for a good 10 minutes, had an uninterrupted green light for that long. When I finally turned (against the red light--gave up waiting) I found out a serious accident had occurred a quarter mile away on the freeway overpass. If that light had functioned properly I would have been at that spot at the wrong time.

Hareega said...

g;ad you made it

Alyson P. said...

I had heard rumor of your story through family but you know how sometimes things get exaggerated, and I wondered if it really was such a close call. But that's almost word for word how I heard the story. It was widely enough publicized here that I knew about it before I heard your (almost) part in it and it scared me to think you could have been there. I rarely watch the news, so it must have been made into a big deal for me to have noticed it.

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