Reporter's Notebook: Mom and daughter's incredible account after Russian missile hit their apartment
Their family apartment was at the top of an eight-story block in central Kyiv.
KYIV -- Their apartment shook when the first missile landed nearby.
Ekaterina Volkova’s husband, Liosha, ran upstairs to check that she and their 7-year-old daughter Xenia were alright before going back downstairs to check on their dog, Ennie.
Then it went black.
Another Russian missile had struck their apartment.
Suddenly, Ekaterina said she could feel herself falling, through the debris. Their family apartment at the very top of a modern eight-story block in central Kyiv was caving-in as thick acrid smoke billowed up and across the city skyline. Where they had laughed, played and enjoyed family meals, there was now a triangular-shaped hole of carnage.
With acute pain running through her body, Ekaterina said her first wish was for “a quick death.”
Then she heard a voice.
“Mummy are you alive, are you here?” It was Xenia.
Ekaterina, only able to breathe through her mouth because her nose was clogged-up with dust and crumbs of debris, struggled to talk.
Amid the darkness she tried to reassure her daughter, unaware that their beloved husband and dad, Liosha, was dead.
Earlier on that Sunday morning in late June, Russian pilots had launched several missiles, including the one which hit the Volkova family home. The Ukrainian military later said the cruise missiles had been fired from Russian bomber planes flying over the Caspian Sea.
The Volkova’s family home was probably not the Russian pilot's intended target. A month earlier Russian missiles hit the same street where there is a factory that used to produce missiles though the use of the building today is unclear.
However, the pilot's Russian commander who ordered the attack would have known that the risk of collateral damage in a crowded part of downtown Kyiv, and with it the death of innocent civilians, was very high.
The Russian military launched the missiles regardless and now, 7-year-old Xenia, oblivious to the fact that she had just lost her dad, was trapped in a hellish nightmare under a ton of rubble.
“Sometimes she was screaming. Screaming for someone to come and help”, Xenia's mother, Ekaterina, recalls. And although, externally, she was reassuring her daughter that someone would come, internally she felt fear -- fear that the smoldering ruins would ignite into more perilous flames.
Ekaterina was also completely oblivious to what was going on outside as she and her daughter remained trapped inside a prison of dust and rubble. Ultimately, she feared nobody would come to save them and, in the time that passed, her thoughts overwhelmed her.
At first she felt guilt. It had been her decision to return to Kyiv from Slovakia in May after the family had spent two months there while fleeing from Kyiv in the early stages of the war which had launched in February.
But following the retreat of Russian troops from areas around Kyiv in early April, a semblance of normality quickly returned to the capital. Since then, Russian missile strikes on the capital have been few and far between.
So, motivated by a yearning for their home and everything that comes with it, the Volkovas, like many others, travelled back to Kyiv.
But, in that moment, the overriding thing on Ekaterina’s mind was maternal instinct and the survival of her only child. So when she heard faint voices, she gave Xenia the command.
“I told her to scream”, she told ABC News from her hospital bed. “And she was screaming. And then I heard that they were able to hear her”.
According to Ekaterina, it was then that a feeling of release came over her body even though her arm was still wedged underneath a big slab of concrete and, unbeknown to her at this point, her spine was fractured. But, more importantly to her, she was quite sure by now that her daughter did not have any life-threatening injuries.
A team of professionals were now working frantically to get to the victims of the blast and while the rescue mission unfolded inside, my ABC News colleagues and I were watching from outside the building as Ukrainian firefighters were quickly winched-up, high onto the wreckage of their apartment building.
The rescue team’s videos from inside the building as they worked their way through the rubble to get to Xenia and Ekaterina provide a valuable insight into the bravery, expertise and professionalism of the men and women involved.
Ekaterina could hear every part of the process to free her daughter and -- at one moment -- she felt it too.
The fire crew had to move a wall or heavy panel to slide Xenia’s small body out. But in the process it increased the pressure that the debris was exerting on Ekaterina’s head.
It was “making my head smaller and smaller,” Ekaterina said.
At one point she had to scream out for the rescue team to pause, pleading with them to think about trying to free Xenia in a different way.
But her strength as mom came through.
“I tried not to scream. I was telling myself, come on, it’s your child, so let them do their job,” she continued.
But when 7-year-old Xenia was excavated from the rubble and completely covered in dust, her confused expression spoke only of acute trauma and shock.
Ekaterina says that in the days since, she has not seen her daughter cry.
“I think it’s still deep inside," she said. "There is still quite some mental health recovery needed.”
Back at the apartment building, four hours after the missile hit the family’s home, a badly-injured but conscious Ekaterina, also showered in gray dust and debris, was stretchered out of the building.
35-year-old Ekaterina says she is deeply grateful to the team from the Kyiv State Emergency Service who rescued her and her daughter and two of the team, firefighters Maksym Khorunzhyy and Artur Morkotenko, even visited the pair this past week just before they were discharged from hospital.
The missile that struck their building, however, managed to destroy virtually all of the family’s possessions.
Maksym and Artur, however, were able to recover something from the wreckage for Ekaterina and Xenia. One of the few things that were salvaged from the wreckage of their home? Xenia's favorite sparkly dancing dress.
They also gave Xenia a stuffed animal of a dog -- a gesture in recognition of the fact that Ennie -- the family’s beloved beagle -- was also killed by the blast.
And what about Ekaterina’s feelings towards her country of birth? The country which fired the missile that killed her husband, her dog, destroyed her home and virtually all of her possessions and left her badly injured and her daughter psychologically scarred.
Russia, and by which she means the regime of Vladimir Putin as well as the population at large, “does not care” who they kill, said Ekaterina. Factors like nationality, children, women, “do not matter for them. They just shoot.”
Like other residents of Ukraine who have Russian family members who consume Russian state media, some of her relatives don’t recognize that Russia’s invasion has killed many civilians in Ukraine. A data-driven group, ACLED, estimates that around 10,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed by the war.
Ekaterina says she believes that within the walls of most Russian people’s own parallel world, the truth would be too painful for them to take.
She pleads to Western nations to keep supplying Ukraine with more weapons because she feels like most Ukrainians, that the days of talking with Vladimir Putin are done.
For her, it is obvious that Russia is trying to destroy an independent and free Ukraine.
Ekaterina now says she shrugs at those who promote Kremlin propaganda and lies on social media and falsely claim that the inhumane and deep suffering inflicted on her family was fake.
For the record, Ekaterina’s and Xenia’s scars are real. But, for now, she is not thinking about the future She is fighting every day to get better as she lays bed-ridden healing from the injuries suffered in the blast. Doctors, however, believe she will walk normally again.
She also says that she will not renew her Russian passport which recently expired or return to the country of her birth, where her mother still lives because she does not want to “look into the faces of some people” who do not accept the reality of what is happening in Ukraine.
She says she feels the strength of her dead husband, Liosha, and she remembers his “humor, fun, sarcasm and sometimes black humor. People were in love with him and he was in love with life.”
She focuses on the positives, however small they may be, like the fact that the family’s cats were not found in the rubble of their apartment. It gives her hope that the cats were scared away by the first missile landing and might return to Xenia and Ekaterina one day.
For the hospital staff, however, they are “super heroes who survived.”
Said Anastasia Mageramova from Kyiv’s Childrens Hospital, who cared for them both in the days following the horrific events of Sunday, June 26: “Ekaterina is a symbol of strength, she’s a symbol of hope and she’s a symbol of Ukraine today.”