Lethal chem­i­cal used as a drug haunts theater hostages

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Early one morn­ing in Oc­to­ber 2002, a dense white cloud silently filled Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. It had been three days since Chechen mil­i­tants took more than 800 peo­ple hostage. Rus­sian spe­cial forces faced an im­pos­si­ble task: lib­er­at­ing the hostages from a theater laced with booby traps and sev­eral dozen sui­cide bombers. They turned to chem­i­cals Rus­sian sci­en­tists had been re­search­ing for years, and pumped an aerosol con­tain­ing po­tent forms of the syn­thetic opi­oid fen­tanyl into the theater be­fore storm­ing it.

As the mys­te­ri­ous sub­stance de­scended, peo­ple knelt, cov­er­ing their faces as best they could, ac­cord­ing to eye­wit­ness ac­counts. No one was chok­ing. Peo­ple sim­ply dropped into what ap­peared to be a deep sleep. “I lay down and started pray­ing,” said Vladimir Stukanov, the di­rec­tor of the chil­dren’s troupe at the theater. His friend, Boris Lapin, had given him his coat, which Stukanov pressed to his face. “Boris died, but saved me,” he said.

Com­man­dos stormed the theater and killed the at­tack­ers, but more than 120 hostages died from the ef­fects of the chem­i­cals. Many sur­vivors suf­fered last­ing health ef­fects.

The Rus­sian govern­ment ac­knowl­edged that the aerosol con­tained fen­tanyl-re­lated com­pounds, but re­fused to re­veal the ex­act com­po­si­tion. Years later, Bri­tish govern­ment sci­en­tists tested cloth­ing and urine sam­ples from three sur­vivors and con­cluded that the aerosol con­tained car­fen­tanil, one of the most po­tent opi­oids on the planet, as well as the less-pow­er­ful remifen­tanil.

Today, car­fen­tanil is read­ily avail­able from ven­dors in China, who of­fer to ex­port the deadly sub­stance around the world, no ques­tions asked, an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found. Car­fen­tanil is not a con­trolled sub­stance in China, the world’s largest chem­i­cals ex­porter, de­spite US ef­forts to get Bei­jing to black­list it. Olga Dolo­tova, an en­gi­neer, re­mem­bers see­ing the plumes de­scend in the theater be­fore los­ing con­scious­ness. Later, she heard some­one say, “She is alive.” When Dolo­tova opened her eyes again, she found her­self on a bus packed with bod­ies.

“It was such a hor­ror just to look at it,” she said. “No­body was mov­ing. They put the peo­ple there like dolls.” Dolo­tova wanted to get up, or shout. She wanted the bus to stop. And she badly needed to vomit. “I was hav­ing spasms, but I could not throw up,” she said. When she reached the hospi­tal, she gulped down some tea and be­gan retch­ing. “I con­tin­ued throw­ing up and throw­ing up and throw­ing up,” she said. She said she understands why Rus­sian spe­cial forces used the chem­i­cals. “They had to some­how ren­der them im­mo­bile,” she said of the mil­i­tants. “What else was there?”

But she said med­i­cal and res­cue per­son­nel were not trained to deal with ef­fects of the mys­te­ri­ous aerosol and made deadly er­rors - fail­ing, for ex­am­ple, to tilt peo­ple’s heads so they didn’t choke on their own tongues. “More peo­ple would have been saved,” she said.

The aerosol cre­ated a kind of sleep without mem­ory, Stukanov said. “It’s like this clus­ter has been erased and dropped out of your head,” he said. — AP

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