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Moscow theatre siege reconstruction
BBC Two, Thursday 15 January 2004, 9pm
The Moscow Theatre Siege
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The Moscow Theatre Siege - transcript

NARRATOR (JACK FORTUNE): A year ago in Moscow terrorists took a thousand people hostage and threatened to kill them. The Russians problem was how to get them out, alive.

ROBIN HORSFALL: A traditional type of assault under this circumstance was highly unlikely to be successful. The Russians needed another option and fortunately they had one.

NARRATOR: When special forces stormed the building they used a secret weapon never tried before. A mysterious knockout gas put over a thousand people to sleep. A hundred and seventy never woke up. The Russian authorities claimed the gas was not lethal but they refused to say what it was.

SVETLANA GUBAREVA (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): If this stuff is so harmless then why is the formulae a state secret.

NARRATOR: So why did so many people die? And what was the mystery gas? Tonight Horizon investigates the tragedy of the Moscow Theatre Siege.

NARRATOR: On October 23rd 2002 on the outskirts of Moscow a thousand people were enjoying a night out at the theatre. Nord Ost was a romantic musical set during the second world war. In the stalls was Svetlana Gubareva her thirteen year old daughter Alexandra and her American fiancé Sandy. The family were there to celebrate, they’d just been given permission to emigrate to America.

SVETLANA GUBAREVA (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): Everything was working out very well and we were in high spirits. We set off for a stroll around town, did lunch, and when we got back to the Metro station we bought the theatre tickets, we wanted to carry on the celebrations.

NARRATOR: Just after the interval the plot took an unexpected twist. It was caught on the theatre’s video. A shot rang out. Masked figures spread through the theatre.

SVETLANA GUBAREVA (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): My first thought was how well the director had worked such a clever stunt in to the play. I couldn’t believe it was true for a long time.

NARRATOR: But it wasn’t part of the play. Forty heavily armed men and women had taken over the theatre. The women had explosives strapped to their bodies. They had also brought two massive bombs which they forced their hostages to help them place among the seats.

IVAN OGANESYAN (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): The bomb was very heavy, very heavy indeed. And when we put it in the middle of the balcony right by the parapet two men and a woman began arming it. Very slowly and very carefully.

NARRATOR: The terrorists were from Chechnya, a Russian province fighting for independence. The group’s leader Movsar Barayev had a terrifying announcement.

NARRATOR: Unless Russia withdrew its troops from Chechnya they would start to kill the hostages. They themselves were not afraid to die.

OLEG ZYUGANOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): They threatened to shoot anyone who got up from their seat and if government didn’t give in to their demands then they promised to blow up the whole building.

NARRATOR: One of those now under Baria’s control was child actress Kristina Kyrbatov. Her parents were on their way to collect her when they heard the news.

NATASHA KYRBATOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): Kristina had called her sister and said tell mummy and daddy that we’ve been taken hostage. I can't talk any more, I love you all. That was it, that was the last we heard for three days.

NARRATOR: It was the start of a week which would shock Russia profoundly. In the days that followed the families of a thousand hostages watched in horror, and the rest of the world was transfixed as crisis turned to tragedy. Outside the Russian army quickly surrounded the theatre and a stand off began.

Prof PAUL WILKINSON (Centre for the Study of Terrorism): President Putin and his security advisors regarded this as an extremely er desperate situation, the worst hostage situation they’d ever faced and indeed the worst that has been faced by any er democratic country.

NARRATOR: The conflict in Chechnya had been notoriously brutal. There was barbarity on both sides. Now the Chechens have brought the fight to the heart of Russia. Just miles from the Kremlin itself. Compromise seemed highly unlikely. So the Russians had to work out how to free the hostages without the Chechens blowing up the theatre. The scale of the challenge faced by Russian military planners is well known to Robin Horsfall. He was in the SAS team which stormed the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980.

ROBIN HORSFALL (SAS, 1978-1984): The traditional approach is to mount an assault through multiple entry points simultaneously, using speed, aggression and surprise. The problem with this is they couldn’t get the surprise factor in to it.

NARRATOR: The Russian troops would have to fight their way along a hundred feet of corridors before they could reach the hall. They would also have to attack up a well defended staircase.

ROBIN HORSFALL : So you're not going to get a quick and successful entry.

NARRATOR: The whole operation would take precious minutes and give the Chechens ample time to set off their explosives.

ROBIN HORSFALL: The largest explosive devise was based in the centre of the auditorium, right in the centre of all the hostages. If this explosive device had gone off the whole of the ceiling would have come down on to the hostages inside and could have caused in excess of eighty percent casualties and it would end in complete and catastrophic disaster.

NARRATOR: A traditional assault was highly unlikely to succeed. The Russians would have to come up with something new. Inside the theatre it soon became clear how ruthless the Chechens could be. At three thirty a.m. six hours in to the siege a young woman wandered in to the hall from the street. She started shouting at the terrorists.

SVETLANA GUBAREVA (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): They pushed her through the side doors. And there were two short bursts of gunfire. And then there was dead silence. At that moment we realised this was no joke.

NARRATOR: the Chechens had proved they were ready to kill. The Russian position was desperate. So they decided to do something never tried before. They would use a secret weapon, gas. For half a century hostage rescue teams around the world have searched for a gas that would knock people out without killing. It could save thousands of lives.

Dr BERNARD RILEY (Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham): If you look at the frequency at which hostages are taking er on a worldwide basis you can understand that, that the goal is immeasurable, it’s a priceless commodity if you could actually have something that could do, do this.

NARRATOR: Over the years many drugs have been investigated but nobody had found one that worked. The problem was how to put the terrorists to sleep without killing any hostages.

Dr MARK WHEELIS (University of California at Davis): Narcing somebody out is a substantial um, er pharmacological effect and what we’re trying, what we’re asking this agent to do is substantially affect somebody’s er, er central nervous system and yet not cause any lethality, that’s a tall order.

NARRATOR: For the west the perfect knockout gas remained allusive. But it seems the Russians thought they had found the answer. By the small hours of Saturday morning, three days in to the siege, they were ready to put it to the test. At five thirty a.m. while most of the hostages slept the operation began.

IVAN OGANESYAN (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): I woke up suddenly, I heard a distinctive hissing sound, just like when you turn on a gas cooker.

NARRATOR: The Chechens also realised something was happening, and panicked.

OLEG ZYUGANOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): The last thing I remember before I passed out was two Chechens on the stage shouting something up to the balcony, then they ran out of the hall.

NARRATOR: The men ran to the outer corridors where they broke windows and started to fire wildly out at the Russians. But the Chechen women who could blow up the theatre at any moment were still in the hall with the hostages. So the Russians did not attack, they waited for the gas to work.

IVAN OGANESYAN (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): There was sort of a dulling of the senses, weakness, indifference. I couldn’t smell anything and my hearing was very faint. Everything was sort of cut off. I really wanted to go to sleep.

NARRATOR: Twenty minutes passed, still they waited. Then a hostage walked out, apparently unaffected. It was proof the gas had not yet knocked everybody out. So the Russians kept waiting. Finally at six twenty five, a whole hour after the gas was first pumped in, the special forces attacked. When they got to the auditorium they shot the unconscious Chechen women point blank. They couldn’t risk them waking and detonating the bombs.

OLEG ZYUGANOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): I could hear shooting and there was shouting in Chechen and Russian.

NARRATOR: Then in a storeroom upstairs they caught up with the Chechen leader Movsar Barayev.

OLEG ZYUGANOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): Something fell on my back, I think it was a shell casing, then everything went quiet. All I could hear was Russian. Then I realised that it was all over.

NARRATOR: Not a single soldier had been injured, no hostages had been caught in the cross fire. In a building nearby anxious relatives were told the good news.

NATASHA KYRBATOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): They came and told us it had been successful and all the children were alive, they definitely told us that. We were so happy, kissing and hugging each other, jumping and shouting for joy.

NARRATOR: It looked as if the operation and its use of the mysterious gas had been a stunning success. Later that morning hundreds of relatives thronged to hospitals anxious to find their loved ones. Among them were Vladimir and Natasha Kyrbatov. They had been told a girl matching their daughter’s description was at hospital number thirteen.

VLADIMIR KYRBATOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): When we described her again, what she was wearing and so on they calmly said yes we have a girl like that here, but she is in the morgue. She was underneath a blanket and we could only see her trainers. We identified her, signed the form and that was it.

NARRATOR: Svetlana Gubareva woke up in hospital no knowing where her family was.

SVETLANA GUBAREVA (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): I was sitting on my bed and heard them listing names on the radio. I heard my own name and started listening more carefully. Then I heard the phrase, sadly there have been fatalities among the hostages. Yesterday Alexander Gubareva died in hospital.

NARRATOR: Not only had Svetlana lost her daughter, her American fiancée Sandy had also died. As the day wore on the death toll rose relentlessly. Russia’s stunning victory had turned to tragedy. For grief stricken relatives it was incomprehensible. A hundred and twenty nine hostages had died. Their loved ones demanded to know why. Despite the death toll the authorities claimed the operation had been a great success. And they had a surprising explanation for the tragedy. They said it had nothing to do with the mysterious gas. Officials claimed the one hundred and twenty nine hostages died because they already had life threatening diseases.

VICTOR PREOBRAJENSKIJ (Russian Centre for Disaster Medicine): In most cases there were serious illnesses like bronchial asthma or heart disease, in a number of cases there were heart attacks caused by circulatory disease. Combined with exhaustion and stress over three days this in itself could have very serious consequences.

NARRATOR: But nobody believed it. Least of all like Vladimir Natasha who had lost lively young children.

NATASHA KYRBATOV (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): The fact that Kristina had supposedly gone without food people are trying to tell me it was because of this but of course I don’t believe that, it’s rubbish. The only reason that I can accept is that she was poisoned by the gas.

NARRATOR: The outrage of the victim’s families was matched by news reports around the world. Some claimed nerve gas had been used, that would have broken international law. Four days after the theatre was stormed the authorities tried to put a stop to the speculation.

YURY SHEVCHENKO (Russian Health Minister): To neutralise the terrorists we used a substance based on derivatives of fentanyl. Such substances are medical drugs which can produce a very quick anaesthetic effect. They are widely used in medicine and on their own are not lethal.

NARRATOR: Fentanyl, far from being a nerve gas or even a weapon it’s a common pain killer, a man made opiod like morphine, only stronger. Anaesthetists like Bernard Riley use fentanyl every day. A small dose of fentanyl gives pain relief.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: What I’m going to do is give you this powerful painkiller that’s going in.

NARRATOR: A larger dose will make you unconscious.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: You might feel as if you’ve had a couple of pints of cider by now, as that stuff’s circulated around your body. Are you alright?

NARRATOR: But there is one drawback, fentanyl can stop you breathing.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: Because of the effects of the fentanyl you can see he’s not breathing at all. So until he starts to breath spontaneously on his own I just have to keep on squeezing the bag.

NARRATOR: Although Fentanyl can stop you breathing there is an antidote called naloxone which reverses the effects. Because of this it might have seemed sensible for the Russians to try fentanyl.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: It’s very stable in terms of its effect on the heart, it can be delivered as a vapour and most importantly of all it’s got a very effective antidote. So putting all of that together it might seem reasonable to use it.

NARRATOR: The idea that fentanyl might have been used was supported by events on the day of the assault. As these pictures show the special forces brought supplies of naloxone. And it seemed to work. So why did so many people die? One possible answer may lie in the rescue operation itself. Once the troops had secured the theatre doctors from the Moscow rescue service rushed to help. But nobody had told them in advance about the gas.

ALEXANDER SHABALOV (Moscow Rescue Services): Nobody warned us that they had used special gas. The only thing we heard was on the government radio channel. We were just told that we should take our medical kits to give first aid to the victims.

NARRATOR: Because they hadn’t been warned the rescue workers hadn’t brought enough naloxone, neither had the special forces. Just seventeen doctors were confronted by a thousand unconscious casualties. They were forced to call in troops to help evacuate them. The soldiers inexperienced in first aid dragged people out and laid them on their backs where they could easily choke. Within minutes the medics were completely overwhelmed.

ALEXANDER SHABALOV: People were just dumped in a heap. It was impossible to tell who had injections and who hadn’t. Some may have had two, others none at all.

NARRATOR: So was the botched medical response the cause of the disaster. It appeared to explain everything. And it seemed to let fentanyl off the hook. But there was just one problem, scientists around the world were beginning to doubt if the Russians had used fentanyl at all. It was all a question of quantity. The volume of the hall was thirteen thousand, five hundred cubic metres, and there were over a thousand people inside. To knock everybody out would take a huge amount of fentanyl. In California one scientist had worked out just how much.

Dr MARK WHEELIS: If you want to figure out how much fentanyl it would have taken in Moscow we have to make some assumptions. First we have to estimate the dosage needed per kilogramme of bodyweight in the aerosol form. And we have to know how much an average er person in the theatre weighed. And we have to know what their respiratory rate was, how much they were, how much air they were breathing in in a given time. And finally we have to know the total volume of the air space in the theatre. If we put all that together, do the math, we come out with a number, we can estimate that it would take nineteen and a half kilogrammes of fentanyl, nearly fifty pounds of fentanyl, way too much to be practical to get in to the air volume and the theatre in the small amount of time that was available. I don't think fentanyl could have been the agent used.

NARRATOR: Mark Wheelis’s view is supported by evidence from the theatre. Most of the hostages say they were knocked out within minutes of the gas first appearing. To pump in fifty pounds of fentanyl would have taken much longer. This suggests the Russians used a drug far stronger than fentanyl, but what? Because fentanyl is man made it can easily be manipulated by scientists. They’ve developed dozens of so called derivatives or variations of the drug. Some even stronger than the original. So perhaps the Russians had used one of these. In Salt Lake City that’s the view of one scientist who ought to know. Ted Stanley is a renowned anesthesiologist. He has also done work to develop a knockout gas. The work was commissioned by the FBI.

Prof TED STANLEY(University of Utah): The US er government agencies er came and asked us if we would study er some of these drugs in animals as a precursor to possibly using these compounds to immobilise human beings.

NARRATOR: In the mid nineteen nineties Professor Stanley conducted a series of experiments using the most powerful derivatives of fentanyl. One was sufentanyl. Sufentanyl is basically the fentanyl molecule with an extra element, sulphur. This makes it ten times stronger. But Dr Stanley argues that even this was probably not strong enough for what the Russians needed to do.

Prof TED STANLEY: I think that sufentanyl was a possible substance that was used but the victims had an affect that lasted too long and sufentanyl would have been shorter. And I think that a stronger substance was probably used.

NARRATOR: There is another derivative which is even stronger. It’s made by taking the basic fentanyl molecule and adding carbon to create carfentanyl.

Prof TED STANLEY: Carfentanyl is ten times stronger than sufentanyl, a hundred times stronger than fentanyl and ten thousand times stronger than morphine.

NARRATOR: the Russians would have needed just six hundred and fifty grams of carfentanyl to knock out everybody in the Moscow theatre. That’s just half the amount of sufentanyl they would have needed and a thirtieth of the fentanyl. That’s why Professor Stanley believes carfentanyl is the most likely candidate for the mystery gas. But there’s just one problem with carfentanyl it’s not meant to be used on humans. Carfentanyl is so strong it can knock out the world’s most powerful animals. This bison is being tranquilised so the vets can treat it for parasites. It weighs almost a tonne and will be completely sedated by just four and a half milligrammes.

Dr TERRY KREEGER (Wyoming Game and Fish Department): If a human received the dosage that we prepared for the bison that person would show all the classical signs of a narcotic or an opiod overdose. That is there’d be behavioural changes, the person would be dizzy, he or she may vomit, er they would pass out and as they got deeper and deeper in to, to anaesthesia if you will er respiration would probably stop. They would stop breathing, and if at that point there wasn’t medical intervention the person probably would die from this drug.

NARRATOR: Used correctly carfentanyl is perfectly safe, but in the Moscow theatre anything this powerful would have been extremely risky. Carfentanyl is so potent that a safe dose for each person would need to be infinitesimal, getting it right would be critical.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: The danger of using a very potent substance like carfentanyl is because the dosage to achieve the effect you want is so small that a small mistake, a small margin of error becomes extremely dangerous.

NARRATOR: What would make it even more dangerous is that some people would need far less of the drug to knock them out than others. It depends on factors like age and weight, and the strong fit Chechens were likely to be among the most resistant.

Dr MARK WHEELIS: You have to use a dose of anaesthetic that is sufficient to with confidence knock out the, the young health hostage takers er that’s going to drive you to use a dose, dose that is potentially quite dangerous to the, to at least some of the people in this room.

NARRATOR: More dangerous still, some of the suicide bombers were in the middle of the hall, as far away as it was possible to be from the air-conditioning vents. Again the Russians would have had to increase the dose to compensate.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: If you're going to give a very potent substance like carfentanyl as an aerosol spray then the people who are closest to the point of entry of the spray are very likely to get an overdose, it’s as simple as that.

NARRATOR: Could the Russians really have taken such a gamble with hostages’ lives? Because they have consistently refused to say precisely what was in the gas it seemed impossible to tell. But in Munich there was a man who thought he could find out. Professor Tomesluka treated two survivors who were flown to Germany the day after the siege was broken. He took blood and urine samples to try to discover what the Russians had used.

Prof THOMAS ZILKER (Technical University Hospital, Munich): I think that is very, very important, we always want to know what was the poison in, in every patient, so we are very interested to find out what sort of opiod it was.

NARRATOR: Professor Zilker brought one of his samples to Britain. He came to a company called HFL which specialises in detecting these kinds of drugs. Dr Steve Pleasance carried out the tests using some of the most sensitive equipment available.

Dr STEVE PLEASANCE (HFL Limited): We’re talking in er parts of a trillion er in terms of er drugs in biological fluids.

NARRATOR: The machine detects drugs by separating out the different molecules in the sample and measuring them in a kilo weight. In this case the plan was to compare any substance detected with controlled samples of fentanyl, sufentanyl and carfentanyl. The scientists were confident that if any of these drugs was used in Moscow they would find it. But after exhaustive testing they found nothing.

Dr STEVE PLEASANCE: The top trace is from the control sample of, of human urine that we have er purposely spiked with fentanyl, sufentanyl and carfentanyl. The bottom er trace, this is the sample from the patient, by comparing the two we don’t see any peaks at all. Er so therefore we deduce that there are none of these er fentanyl derivatives within the urine sample.

Prof THOMAS ZILKER: Yes they are definitely, they are not there.

NARRATOR: It was an extremely surprising result. The Russians hadn’t used fentanyl, they hadn’t used fentanyl, they hadn’t even used the most likely derivative carfentanyl. So what was the Moscow gas? It was back to square one. There were a few definite clues, first the symptoms, unconsciousness, vomiting and pin point pupils are classic signs of opiod poisoning. And hostages recovered when they received naloxone, the opiod antidote. Then there were the words of the Health Minister, he admitted they had used an opiod, a derivative of fentanyl. And whatever the gas was it must have been extremely potent because they had to knock out an entire theatre. But tests showed they had not used the most likely fentanyl derivatives. There was only one possible explanation.

Prof THOMAS ZILKER: It seems to be different from fentanyl, carfentanyl and sufentanyl but it has to be, it has to have the potency of carfentanyl at least because otherwise it wouldn’t work in these circumstance. So the Russians obviously have designed a new fentanyl which we can not detect in, in the west.

NARRATOR: All that experts could say for certain was that to knock out so many people so quickly Russia’s secret gas had to be as strong as carfentanyl. But anything that potent should have been extremely deadly. A hundred and twenty nine hostages had died but over eight hundred and sixty had survived. Had it been carfentanyl it could have been far worse. So had the Russians managed to create a drug just as strong as carfentanyl but much less lethal?

Dr MARK WHEELIS: The fact that the Russians did it and got away with a lethality of, of less than twenty percent suggests to me that very likely there may have been a novel agent with a, with a higher safety margin that normal fentanyl.

NARRATOR: The theory now must be that the Russians had developed a gas which could knock people out but with much less chance of stopping them breathing. It hardly seemed possible. But a scientific breakthrough in Germany has just shown how they might have done it. In Göttingen one man may have finally solved the riddle of how to deal with the side affects of fentanyl. Professor Diethelm Richter and his team were not trying to create the perfect knockout gas, but to make severe pain relief much safer. Fentanyl causes pain relief and ultimately unconsciousness by depressing certain parts of the brain. This includes the part which tells the body to breathe. The challenge was to find a way to block this potentially fatal side affect.

Prof DIETHELM RICHTER (University of Göttingen): We were looking for a drug to compensate for the depressive affect of fentanyl and hopefully not er change the activity of the pain system so lets the pain system be depressed but just bring breathing activity back.

NARRATOR: Professor Richter began to investigate the effects of an experimental stimulant called BMU8. He conducted tests on rats linked to a computer monitor. First they dosed the rats with fentanyl which caused their breathing response to slow.

Prof DIETHELM RICHTER: Look at this. Oh that’s a strong effect.

NARRATOR: Eventually the breathing stopped altogether. Then they added the BMU8. The effects were striking.

Prof DIETHELM RICHTER: There is respiratory activity coming back, it’s increasing in altitude and now the activity is getting stronger and stronger, it’s getting back almost to normal levels. I would say that is a very robust breathing activity you see here, that’s stable.

NARRATOR: This breakthrough could explain everything. Adding BMU8 to fentanyl derivatives may create a powerful knockout gas which doesn’t stop you breathing. Perhaps Professor Richter in his search for safer pain relief had accidentally stumbled on what the Russians had done in Moscow.

Prof DIETHELM RICHTER: You would have er a mixture of drugs er which can be used as a knockout weapon, er which might be safer than using fentanyl alone. Because you have er treated the er severe side effect of block out of breathing.

NARRATOR: Nobody can be sure but perhaps the Russians had beaten Professor Richter to his discovery. Maybe they were right when they claimed their gas was not inherently deadly. But if so why did a hundred and twenty nine people die? It might all go back to the moment the Russians pumped in their gas. At that point they may really have thought it would not kill. But even though the gas itself may not have stopped the hostages breathing, there was something else that would. As soon as they fell unconscious their heads would slump, and this in itself could be life threatening.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: Some of them would have lolled their head one way or another or even backwards, over the back of the chair. And all of those things would tend them to lose control of their airway because they’re unconscious but probably to fall in the position where their breathing would be obstructed.

NARRATOR: Any hostage whose airways stayed blocked for more than three minutes would be in a critical condition. And yet the Russian troops didn’t move for a whole hour.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: You would be at risk of simply choking to death, the level of oxygen in your blood would drop. And er that would cause brain damage eventually and er before that probably cardiac arrest.

NARRATOR: even once the Russians got in to the hall there were a thousand hostages needing attention in minutes. But the evacuation inevitably took another hour.

Dr BERNARD RILEY: The physical difficulty of getting from the aisle to a centre of a row, time. The physical positioning of the patient, difficult. Getting the patient out in to the aisle and out in to er the open air, difficult.

NARRATOR: Many must have died in the hall itself, long before any help could possibly have reached them. No medical response how ever good could have saved them. Even if this had happened in the Albert Hall with excellent medical backup I still think there would have been a large number of deaths.

NARRATOR: The Russians may well have found the holy grail of hostage rescue. A knockout gas which doesn’t stop you breathing. But it killed anyway.

Dr MARK WHEELIS: The perfect knock out gas is a dream, any agent used in a situation like this is going to kill some people and permanently damage others.

NARRATOR: This is the tragedy of the Moscow siege. The military operation worked, the gas may have been safer than anything known in the west, but a hundred and twenty nine people still died, and nothing could have saved them.


 
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