Ukraine: Medical aid workers describe deadly missile strike in Bakhmut
Regaining consciousness in a cloud of smoke, Simon Johnsen heard a loud whistling in his ears. He checked to see if he still had all his body parts.
Next to him, fellow medic Pete Reed was dead. So was the civilian Ukrainian woman whose injuries they had come to treat.
It was lunchtime on Thursday, January 2, in Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region and a Russian missile had struck just feet from where the two were about to administer aid.
Johnsen, a medic from Norway, and a group of other volunteers had arrived on the scene just moments earlier.
Speaking to CNN, they describe the attack as a prime example of Russia targeting medics and frontline helpers in so-called “double-taps”: hitting a target, waiting a few minutes for first responders to arrive, and then hitting the same spot again.
Video footage from the scene, shown to CNN, shows the incoming missile hitting Reed’s team’s makeshift ambulance.
Munitions experts have examined the video and identified the weapon as an anti-tank guided missile, Reed’s wife, Alex Kay Potter, told CNN after arriving back from Ukraine.
Potter believes the attack on the aid workers was the Russian military’s intent, and says that their ambulance was clearly marked.
“It wasn’t just some random artillery doubletap – they were being tracked,” she says. “They were very much targeted.”
Despite numerous strikes on medical workers and facilities over the course of this war, Russia has denied deliberately targeting civilians. The Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Reed, a former US marine, had come to the scene through the medical aid group Global Outreach Doctors.
Johnsen and another colleague from Norway, Sander Sørsveen Trelvik, had made their way to Ukraine as volunteers with another humanitarian organisation, Frontline Medics. Both were injured in the blast but survived.
“It was a normal day in Bakhmut,” Johnsen says after being evacuated to Norway. His team arrived early in the morning and had been conducting a mobile clinic – carrying out free examinations and dispensing medications.
He says there was incoming and outgoing fire but it wasn’t “much hotter” than usual.
Some of the fiercest fighting since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began is taking place on the streets of Bakhmut, with soldiers on both sides referring to it as the “meat grinder” on account of the hundreds of lives lost daily in battle.
The team were sitting down having coffee with fellow volunteers when they got an urgent call for help. “We went there with our vehicle and Pete’s team went with his vehicles,” Johnsen says.
It was very quiet when they entered the street but they immediately noticed two burned out vehicles. The injured woman’s car was completely destroyed, and her husband was holding her head.
Johnsen says they don’t know what happened to her because they had no time to gather information. “I had just sat down with the patient… I was just about to start checking her and then we got hit.”
Reed and his team, plus Johnsen and Trelvik were next to the injured woman when the attack happened.
In the immediate aftermath of the blast, Johnsen and Trelvik ran for cover amid incoming mortars. They were followed by a photographer on assignment for the Wall Street Journal, Emanuele Satolli, and his team.
The group tried to take cover inside a house but the door was locked.
Though shaken, Johnsen recalled realizing that his own injuries could not be too severe, “because I was up walking, and I was breathing, and I was conscious”.
Satolli remembers asking the Norwegians if they wanted help getting out. “We stayed inside the courtyard and our security guy said ‘we have’ to go’. So we asked the two paramedics if they wanted to come with us and they said yes,” Satolli recalls.
The group began to move towards Satolli’s car. But in the confusion, Trelvik went the wrong way, turning back towards the blast site.
A photograph taken by Satolli would later show Trelvik coming to his car – bloodied and wide-eyed, his trousers shredded.
“We waited in the car for him and Simon (Johnsen) started yelling ‘come here, come here’ and that’s when I took that picture,” Satolli says.
He says when he looks at the photo now he feels “very sorry” for Trelvik.
“He’s a young guy and was volunteering. I think it was a very traumatic experience for him… I hope he will recover not just physically but mentally,” Satolli says, speaking to CNN from Turkey.
Another volunteer with Frontline Medics, Erko Laidinen from Estonia, captured the missile blast with his phone.
He told CNN he was seated in the Frontline Medics vehicle when the missile hit, filming the team on his phone through the car window.
In the attack, his phone was thrown from the car but continued to record the sound of incoming shelling for the next 20 minutes. He jumped out of the vehicle, unharmed, and tucked behind a tree, assuming his vehicle would be next, as he waited for the smoke to clear.
Laidinen was separated from the others, and ended up entering a five-storey apartment looking for shelter. When there was a two-minute pause he made a run for it, deeper inside Bakhmut – host to street to street fighting – and away from the explosion site.
He spotted a house with a smoking chimney and ran to it. The door was open and he ducked into the basement for around half an hour to catch his breath.
Laidinen knew he needed to get to his team’s hub to access the internet, to let people know he was alive. He asked a local to take him to the Ukrainian military. A half hour interrogation ensued as the military probed his identity. Fortunately, Erko says, the commander spoke English.
The military drove him to the hub, he said. That’s when he learned his fellow Frontline Medics colleagues had been evacuated by Satolli’s team.
By this time, it was around 4 p.m. local in Bakhmut and beginning to get dark. Driving in Bakhmut at night means driving with your lights off or risk a Russian attack.
In a stroke of luck for Laidinen, a Kyiv-based group came to the hub to pick up something they’d forgotten, and offered him a lift out of the besieged city.
Both Johnsen and Trelvik are back in Norway, receiving further medical treatment.
Trelvik had suffered burn and shrapnel wounds to his body and both legs and arms.
Johnsen suffered head trauma. He has lost hearing in his right ear and his left ear was also damaged.
Still, Johnsen says he is certain he will go back to Ukraine as soon as he is fit.
“I’m not stupid, I know the risk. And yes, it was a close call, and I could have lost my life and everything. But there is still so much work and help needed in Ukraine,” he says.