KREMENCHUK, Ukraine — Exhausted rescue workers picked through the smoldering rubble of what had been a busy shopping mall in central Ukraine on Tuesday, still searching for survivors after a deadly Russian missile strike once again left the country reeling and pleading with its international allies for tougher action.
In this industrial city and across Ukraine, the attack relatively far from the artillery battles at the front lines was a jarring reminder that Russia's assault could arrive at their doorsteps at any time.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Moscow of carrying out “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history” on the site in Kremenchuk, which he said was packed with hundreds of civilians. The death toll rose to at least 18 Tuesday, Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi told reporters, with nearly 60 others injured, including a child.
More than 20 people were reported missing, Monastyrskyi said, adding that most of the bodies had not been identified because they were so severely burned. More than 1,000 people were reportedly shopping or working at the mall when air raid sirens sounded, leading many to evacuate and helping to hold down the number of potential deaths.
Still, hope faded that anyone else might be found alive, and global outrage mounted.
Leaders of the Group of Seven nations, which include the U.S., condemned what they called an “abominable attack.” They wrapped up a summit focused on the war with a pledge to impose economic pain on the Kremlin and support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” The shopping center strike and the accompanying images of fiery wreckage brought renewed focus to the severe civilian toll of the Kremlin’s war after weeks of updates on the grinding battle for control of eastern Ukraine.
Cherry pickers and cranes picked up large beams as workers toiled through mangled metal and debris inside the charred ruins of the shopping center. A strong smell of fire permeated the space.
Speaking to NBC News at the site, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said the attack will be investigated as a possible war crime.
Yurii Ruseniuk, the head of the surgical department at a local hospital, said the facility had handled 26 of the injured from the shopping center. Ruseniuk said he treated three patients, two of whom were working at the mall. The other had simply stopped by to use the mall’s ATM when the attack took place.
Oleg Kovalenko, 56, who works as a mechanic at the local train station, said he was walking to his daughter's birthday party through a park next to the mall when he heard a clap and a second sound that left his ears buzzing for hours.
The shock wave made his head spin, and it took a moment for him to realize he had been flung from his feet by the blast. Kovalenko, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said he had heard similar sounds before.
"Everyone was on the ground: One grandma fell over the bench, another one fell as she was chasing her grandchild," he said as he swept up glass shards close to the attack. "All of them were alive but still lying on the floor or awkwardly crouching towards each other. I stood up and saw a column of black smoke rising."
The region’s governor, Dmytro Lunin, said it was “the most tragic day” for the Poltava area in more than four months of the war as he declared a regionwide day of mourning for the victims. Meanwhile, Zelenskyy denounced what he called “a calculated Russian strike.”
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the strike but said it hit a legitimate military target in Kremenchuk on Monday, describing it as a depot that harbored weapons and ammunition supplied by the U.S. and its European partners. The detonation of the ammunition, the ministry said Tuesday, caused a fire in what it said was an empty and disused shopping mall nearby — despite accounts from survivors and the presence of worried families fearing their loved ones may be among the dead.
Russia has consistently denied deliberately targeting civilians in Ukraine, but local residents highlighted that the mall could not be confused for anything else.
Kremenchuk is an industrial city with oil refineries, heavy machinery and chemical plants. The Amstor mall was a popular gathering place for residents, a site where younger people bought the latest gadgets at tech stores and older folks walked laps in its interior. Its supermarket was considered the mall's crown jewel, offering products that were otherwise difficult to find during the war — meats, foreign spices, oils and rare liquors — which allowed residents to celebrate special occasions or break from tradition.
Natalia Katysheva, 47, a chemist at a municipal water treatment facility in the city, was a frequent shopper at the mall.
She said that the attack happened on her way home from work and that her bus dropped her off 200 meters from the site of the blaze. She and other riders watched as the smoke unfurled across the blue sky, smelling burning plastic and feeling the scorching heat emanating from the mall — even from that distance.
"You know when you visit the store often the shopkeepers start noticing you. Maybe you don’t know their names and they don’t know your name, but there emerges some kind of a bond between you when you frequent the store," Katysheva said. "I was thinking about the people who were in Amstor at the time of attack. Maybe I did not know them like other people did, but I felt for them."
The attack in Kremenchuk capped several days of increasing Russian missile strikes on cities around Ukraine.
The main thrust of Russia’s assault, now into its fifth month, has been focused for weeks on the eastern region of the Donbas, but the strikes in Kremenchuk and beyond served as brutal reminders that Ukrainians throughout the country remain vulnerable to Russian forces’ far-reaching artillery and airstrikes.
Kyiv has been urging the West for weeks to provide it with long-range weapons and defensive systems to combat the firepower.
A senior U.S. defense official said Monday it wasn’t clear why Russia had launched the strikes across Ukraine in recent days. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said it could be in protest against the G-7 gathering or the delivery of U.S. high-mobility artillery rocket systems, known as HIMARS, to Ukraine. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. also plans to send Ukraine a medium- to long-range surface-to-air missile defense system.
Zelenskyy warned of “greater hostile activity from Russia” this month, saying Russia could strike “purposefully and demonstratively” as Ukraine’s Western allies gathered for the series of summits in Europe.
Alex Guzenko, Ellison Barber and Susan Archer reported from Kremenchuk, Ukraine, and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.