In death of hostages, Russian families left with grief, questions

18 performers in musical among the 117 killed in rescue operation


MOSCOW - It was a grown-up thing to do. Pavel Platonov, a first-year college student, bought two theater tickets for the Wednesday night performance of Nord-Ost, a musical. He wanted to impress a girlfriend he had been dating for about three weeks, his father said.

Though Platonov's father would speak several times with his son by cellular phone after he was taken hostage by Chechen terrorists in the theater in central Moscow, he would never see his son alive again. Pavel, 18, an A-student who liked computers and was studying psychology, died from the effects of a gas used by Russian forces in a rescue operation that has left 117 dead.

Grief eclipsed all other thoughts for Platonov's father, who, speaking by telephone last night from his home, still did not know the specific circumstances of his son's death. Family members, after grueling searches, only Sunday began to learn of deaths as city morgues finally began to make that information available - about 48 hours after the rescue operation. But many have yet to learn the precise cause of death, which in almost all cases was due to the gas used during the rescue operation to incapacitate guerrillas and hostages alike.

"My Pavel is dead," said Platonov, 46, in a trembling voice. "I have no words. I have to calm my wife. We are in pain."

The tragedies began to emerge slowly, one day after hundreds of people were freed from the theater where terrorists held them captive for 57 hours. The crisis touched lives from Russia all the way to Oklahoma City, the hometown of an American who was out to the theater with his fiancee from Kazakhstan.

The loss of life was perhaps most apparent among the actors and musicians who were performing that night. Of 76 performers in Nord-Ost, 18 died - almost one out of every four performers. All but one of the 18 performers died from the gas.

The musical's producer, Georgi Vasilyev, unconscious for 10 hours after inhaling the gas, said he was grateful to be alive but also offered some criticism of the rescue. In an interview last night at Vasilyev's office, bustling with actors and organizers coordinating everything from television interviews to funeral arrangements, he questioned his government's decision to use gas.

"There were other ways to make this decision," said Vasilyev. "Maybe they'll say I didn't know everything. But knowledge is only a part of the necessary information needed to make a decision. There are also human values. Then there are things like political ambition, historical pride and public opinion. It was clear we were being weighed. What portion of us can be given up?"

If the government had relented and agreed to withdraw some troops from Chechnya, as the terrorists demanded, said Vasilyev, "we might not have lost two from the children's cast."

Vasilyev broke down when he spoke of the two children, Arseny Kurilenko, a boy of 13, and Kristina Kurbatova, 14. Children were particularly vulnerable to the gas, mixed to incapacitate grown men. While there are still no official death tolls for children, a rough count shows at least 10 children died.

Moscow observed a day of mourning yesterday, with black strips of cloth tied to flags and all scheduled entertainment canceled.

The hostages included one school group as well as an Irish dancing school class of about 30 young people rehearsing in a different part of the theater complex at the time of the seizure. Out of 16 young students from the Zolotoye Secheniye private school, at least one, a young girl, died. The dance class lost Alexander Karpov, a poet and singer, who also worked on musicals in town.

It was the musicians from the orchestra who fared the worst, said Vasilyev. Timur Faziyev, 28, a musician, refused to tell the Chechen terrorists, who did allow some Muslims to leave, that he practiced Islam. He could not leave "all the guys, the members of the team," he told a friend by cellular phone. He died from the gas.

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