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Story Publication logo April 5, 2022

Kharkiv Fire Brigades Battle Blazes Amid Relentless Russian Bombardments


Ukraine refugees flee to Hungary

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Hundreds of miles to the east of Kyiv is what was once Ukraine's second-largest city of Kharkiv. Now it's largely emptied of its residents as the Russians pound it with artillery, causing widespread destruction and sparking fires. Special correspondent Jack Hewson and filmmaker Ed Ram traveled with fire brigades, whose already difficult jobs have become even more terrifying in the midst of war.

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Read the Full Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Hundreds of miles to the east of Kyiv and Bucha is what was once Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv. Now it is largely emptied of its residents.

While stymied from taking the city, the Russians are still pounding it with artillery, causing widespread destruction and sparking fires.

Special correspondent Jack Hewson and filmmaker Ed Ram travel with fire brigades, whose already difficult jobs have become more terrifying in the midst of war. (SOUND BLARING)

Jack Hewson: That sound means it is time to go, fireproof clothes and now bulletproof vests. Kharkiv is under a constant state of alarm. But few have felt its urgency like the city's firefighters.

Vladimir Podgorniy, Fireman (through translator): I throw all unnecessary thoughts out of my head, so nothing can interfere with me.

Jack Hewson: Before every mission, tensions are high. But it is not just fires that these men have to face.

Sergei Segienko, Fireman (through translator): Our work has become more difficult. And there was a risk before, but now has become riskier because of incoming shells.

Jack Hewson: They are on their way to northeast Kharkiv. On this day, Ukrainian authorities say more than 380 munitions landed on the city and its civilians. Incoming rounds have started yet another apartment blaze. It seems the Russians are trying to smash the people's spirit.

Sergei Segienko (through translator): Everyone experiences the situation in their own way. But people still do their duty. Everyone is worried, but no one talks about it. We keep ourselves to ourselves.

Jack Hewson: But just as the firemen are starting to get this blaze under control, the area comes under renewed attack. It is the third round of artillery that we have had incoming for the last 20 minutes.

These firefighters here behind you, they are also hiding. Everybody is trying to take cover. Let's get down, get down. You can hear the fizz of the shells landing. That means they are particularly close.

There is a pause in the shelling, and the decision is made to pull back. It is too dangerous to operate.

Vladimir Podgorniy (through translator): Once, a shell hit 15 meters away from us. The windshield of our truck was damaged.

Jack Hewson: Since the start of the war, one firefighter has been killed and at least four injured. There are more blazes than the firefighters can get to.

Moscow says it is not targeting civilians, but this residential district has faced heavy bombardment for more than a month. In the course of the morning, a gas main was struck, and this shop front incinerated in the blast. An eerie silence hangs over the street.

But, as we film the devastation, it becomes apparent the Russian guns aren't done.


Jack Hewson: We are having to stay on the ground. The shelling continues around us. It is very close, frankly. This is what people here have to live with every day.


Jack Hewson: The relentless bombardment of Kharkiv has destroyed more than 1,000 homes and public buildings. The fire service's area of operation has been divided by the front line.

Yevgen Vasylenko, Kharkiv Region Fire Service Spokesman (through translator): Yes, rescuers are working in terrible conditions from the first day of the war.

So, every fire warning call is like new training for our service. Every fire, every obstruction, every blast, every departure is never the same.

Jack Hewson: Shelling forces the firemen back to base, and as it continues into the afternoon, the order is given to move underground.

Man (through translator): Wait. I will light the way.

Jack Hewson: It is a long wait for the all-clear. And the shift commander tells me a mixture of artillery and rockets have been most commonly used the Russian forces.

Denis Mamchenko, Fireman (through translator): There was a hit of a Grad rocket in this apartment on the ninth floor. As a result, there was a fire started in two apartments.

Jack Hewson: Cluster munitions, banned in many countries, but not Russia or Ukraine, have also been used in Kharkiv, according to Human Rights Watch.

Denis Mamchenko (through translator): But this type of cluster projectile was found while putting out a fire in the city's biggest marketplace.

Jack Hewson: While Russian forces have moved away from Kyiv, they continue to terrorize Kharkiv. There is no rest for the fire service, as the city continues to burn.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Jack Hewson in, Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Judy Woodruff: The bravery.

And a note: Our coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.


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