"When the air got in, I thought: ‘I'll last until morning.’” The story of a fighter who survived under the rubble of a bombed-out school

Mykola Topol, a member of the territorial defense unit from Chernihiv, miraculously survived the bombing of school No. 18 in his home city on March 3, 2022.

“The lad pushed four fingers into the gap between the slabs,” Chernihiv State Emergency Service Officer Maksym Zhilko says.

The rescued young man lived at 46 Bohuna Street. Shortly before the bombing, he came to the school which housed the headquarters of the local territorial defense.

Translated by Dmitry Lytov, Mikhail Lytov

This story is just one of the many episodes that residents of Chernihiv experienced during three terrible days in March 2022, when Russian planes bombarded residential areas and schools until two of them were shot down. Click here to see a detailed interactive reconstruction of the events of March 3-5 in Chernihiv (it is in Ukrainian, but we are preparing the English version also).

Mykola Topol on the ruins of school No. 18
Mykola Topol on the ruins of school No. 18

‘I thought my ribs would pierce my heart, and my head would crack like a watermelon’

“The bomb fell on us at 12:35. I was sitting in a classroom on the second floor on a chair against the wall. I will never forget the whistle of the bomb. It's like a train buzzing in your ear. I understood: that's it, the end. I felt dust in my eyes and fell down along with the concrete slabs.”

“I opened my left eye in the darkness. I could not move, I was lying under a huge slab: head down, legs up, right arm and leg motionless. There was a fragment of a rock lying on my right eye and a slab on my head. My left hand was not being crushed.”

“I heard screams and the sound of sirens: ambulance, firemen, police. Not for a second did I lose consciousness or panic.”

“I felt something coming out of my eye. I thought, shit, my eye leaked out. Blood flowed from the ear. Everything was covered with rubble. It was cold, and I was shivering badly. I screamed for help as long as I had strength. Then the shelling began, and all services dispersed. Later, the rescuers returned and got those who were on top, alive and dead. But they didn't hear me. When it got dark, everyone left again.”

“I felt for a hole with my left hand and broke through it with my fingers. Air came in. I thought to myself: ‘Hey, I’m alive, I'll last until morning.’ I removed the rock from my eye. For half an hour, I was still afraid to touch it or what was left of it.”


“The slabs were settling from time to time and kept crushing me down harder. For a moment, I realized that I could not breathe. My ribs were squeezed. The hole through which the air was coming in was clogged. I thought my ribs would pierce my heart, and my head would crack like a watermelon. Metal rods pressed into my head, back, buttocks, and thigh. I prayed to die quickly. Because such a long-lasting death is more terrible than an instant one. My cell phone was ringing under me all throughout, going off about 30 times, but I couldn't reach it.”

‘I heard roosters crowing’

“Then I heard roosters crowing. I thought: ‘Oh, wow, I lived until the morning! Now everyone will go out into the street and start digging in the rubble. I must cry for help.’ I started at around 8 in the morning. I was asking for water. And at about 9 a.m. an elderly woman passed by the school. She was local, later I wanted to find her and thank her. She heard me, came up and looked. I said: ‘Hello, call someone for help. You can take your time; I can lie here a little longer.’ She called a neighbor. I stuck four fingers through the hole and showed where I was. They handed me a tube with water. And then the rescuers arrived.”


“They dug, and grenades fell out from under me. They ran away. I shout: ‘Don't be afraid, there is no fuse.’ And they reply: ‘Come on, what the hell, man, do you know how many of you guys we have seen?’. The shelling began, but they did not leave me. They pulled me out, injected painkillers and took X-rays in the hospital – it turned out that everything was intact, there was no fracture. The doctors nicknamed me Ant.”

“I could not warm up for a long time, so I shivered. The nurse brought me broth. I drank and asked for more. She also brought me milk. I stuffed my face, and the nurses laughed at me: ‘Who did they bring us, the guy eats non-stop.’”

“I stayed in the hospital until March 20 but when the shelling started there, the doctors sent home everyone who could walk. As I had nothing to put on to go home, I took off a dead man's shoes when I was helping carry dead bodies to the morgue.”

“It was freezing at home, in the apartment at 46 Bohuna Street, because the windows were blown out. For another two months, my whole body hurt – bruises took a long time to heal, wounds and scratches did not heal well either.” Later, Mykola’s eyesight and hearing deteriorated, but he continued to serve in the Teroborona (territorial defense unit).

“It's not so easy to get rid of Mykola,” he jokes.

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