Firefighters were digging through the burned remains of a house Saturday morning searching for the body of a child, the last member of a family killed in a catastrophic fire caused by a Russian drone attack.
Four bodies already lay in bags in the yard. Investigators had found the charred remains of the father in a corridor and the mother and two children in the bathroom.
Seven people in total died when Russian drones struck a fuel depot late Friday night in one of the most calamitous attacks yet on Kharkiv, the northeastern city that has suffered a series of missile strikes in recent weeks. Burning fuel poured down the street from the destroyed depot, setting a line of houses ablaze so quickly that two families were burned alive in their homes.
“The family was held hostage by the fire inside their own house,” Serhii Bolvinov, chief police investigator of Kharkiv, said after firemen and investigators dug for hours through the smoldering debris. “All of them were very badly burned, and DNA examination will be needed for the final conclusions.”
Oleksandr Kobylev, head of the Kharkiv regional police war-crimes department, said the Russians attacked with Iranian-supplied Shahed drones that struck shortly before 11 p.m.
“The burning fuel was flowing to the yards,” he said. “People were doomed.”
Fifteen houses burned in the conflagration. In addition to the seven deaths, three people were injured in the fire, but more than 50 others managed to escape unhurt.
“It was hot to stand 150 meters from the fire,” Mr. Kobylev said. “Fences, cars, houses were catching fire.”
On Saturday, the street was covered in black sticky mud, mixed with residue from the charred fuel. A small fire still burned in the depot up a hill but the worst damage was down the slope, where houses were gutted skeletons.
“We heard Shaheds flying,” said Olena, 36, who lives in a house on the top of the hill, closest to the oil depot. “It was a hum, like from a low-flying plane. Then a bang and a flash. Three explosions.”
Like several other survivors interviewed, she asked that only her first name be published for security reasons.
“I called emergency at 22:46,” she said. “When we saw burning fuel flowing into our yard, I grabbed my 1-year-old twins and ran away through the backyards.”
Survivors described a river of fire flowing into their yards just five minutes after the explosions of the drone strikes.
“I could smell diesel. It looked like lava from a volcano,” said Mykhaylo, 49, who escaped with his brother Oleksandr, 35, his brother’s girlfriend and their dog; they even managed to drive their cars away. “In 10 minutes the whole house was on fire,” he said.
But two families did not escape.
Olha and Hryhory Putiatin died along with their three children, Lyosha, 7, Misha, 4, and Pasha, 10 months old. After hours of searching, the firefighters found Misha separated from his parents under a pile of rubble in the kitchen.
Volodymyr, a relative, said the family usually hid in the garden cellar when there were air raids. “I was worried they would choke from the smoke,” he said. “But this time they probably ran out and saw that yard is burning, so they hid in the bathroom,” he said.
An emergency worker embraced the children’s grandmother, Tetyana, to prevent her from seeing the bodies. “I’m a mother. I want to see!” she shouted.
“How can I bury my children and grandchildren?” she wailed.
Several houses down the street, a resident, Vadym, was standing over the covered bodies of his parents, Anatoly, 70, and Svitlana, 65. His father was bedridden after a stroke, and his mother had been caring for him, said Vadym, who lives nearby with his wife, Nataliya.
“Mum called screaming, ‘The house is on fire!’” he recounted. “We arrived in 10 minutes, but the fire was already raging inside the house. The whole street was burning. Houses were burning like match boxes.”
His parents had never left Kharkiv during two years of war, but the fire overwhelmed them, he said. “They couldn’t escape. It was a river of burning diesel.”