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She Died Trying to Save the Hostages


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Olga Romanova

Oct. 23 was Olga Romanova's last day at one store in the L'Etoile perfume chain before moving to a long-awaited job at another. She returned home -- an apartment around the corner from the theater where just hours before hundreds of people had been taken hostage -- at around 1:30 a.m. to face questions from her mother.

"I asked her: Where have you been?" Olga's mother, Antonina, said in a telephone interview. Olga told her about the police cordons outside.

"We sat around for a while, drank some tea. She was saying: 'How is it possible that they are keeping women and children in there?' Then -- it was about half past three -- she said, "So, I'll go, maybe I'll get through, maybe I will be able to talk to them, maybe they will release at least the children. I feel sorry for the kids.' I tried to stop her from going, I yelled at her, cried, locked the door. But she left," Antonina Romanova said, ending the interview last week, saying she could not answer any more questions.

Two doctors who were allowed to enter the theater on Oct. 24 carried out the body of the first victim. The next day it was identified as the body of Olga Romanova -- a 26-year-old salesgirl who had supported her pensioner parents and disabled brother.

It is unclear how Romanova entered the neighborhood's former house of culture -- familiar to her since childhood -- which was surrounded by police, although the cordon was weaker in the early hours of the siege.

She apparently was not the only one who did it; at least three others were reported to have gotten through police lines. Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Vasilyev went missing on the first night of the hostage crisis, and his body, with five bullet wounds, was found in the theater's courtyard after the storming, one of his friends said. A Cossack leader was reported to have approached the theater on Oct. 25 -- apparently without permission from the crisis center -- prompting hostage-takers to begin shooting.

Another man got through the security cordon to enter the theater several hours before special forces stormed the building. He said he was looking for his son, who was not found among the hostages. The man was beaten and shot, presumably fatally, according to former hostages, who said the Chechen gunmen accused him of being an FSB agent. Some former hostages said they heard this confirmed by security officials.

Yet Romanova will be remembered as the first victim and the only woman who somehow got in, apparently not realizing the danger.

Former hostage Mark Podlesny, a member of the "Nord Ost" cast, said he saw the woman enter the hall from the rear left door.

"I don't know if it's true, but she looked drunk, and she spoke to them [the hostage-takers] sharply, something like 'Do you understand what you have done here?'" Podlesny said by telephone. "She behaved with them as if they were not terrorists with weapons in their hands, but as if she was arguing with them at the market."

The hostage-takers suspected she was an FSB "spy," Podlesny said, and threatened to kill her. "Go ahead and kill me," he quoted her as saying. "Then she said something else, and then they took her away," Podlesny said. He said he saw a hostage-taker who was inside the hall fire four or five shots from his Kalashnikov in the direction of the door through which Romanova had been taken.

Romanova's colleagues and friends say she was an honest, blunt and hard-working person with a strong sense of justice.

"She was a fighter of sorts," said Yelena Salicheva, a store manager under whom Romanova had worked in 2000 and 2001 and was due to begin working again on Oct. 24. "There are such people, you know -- something clicks and they think they can save the world. Maybe she was short on education, but she was an exceptional human being."

After culinary trade school, Romanova worked at the Krasny Oktyabr chocolate factory, Salicheva said. And then she came to work for the perfume chain.

Olga Fazyaullina, another manager at L'Etoile, said Romanova was a kind person who saw things "in black and white" and always rushed to help. "She simply could not understand how people could lie, how there could be injustice," Fazyaullina said.

Natalya Shchedrina, a high-school classmate of Romanova's who re-established ties with her last winter, also said Romanova's response to the hostage-taking was not out of character. She recalled that Romanova often had forced herself into conflict situations, trying to resolve the dispute.

Shchedrina appealed via the Internet for help for Romanova's parents and brother, who without her salary have only their combined monthly pensions and social payments of 5,000 rubles ($160) to live on.

The appeal was posted on the Vazhno.ru web site, which has gathered information about the hostages. From there it prompted a group of Russian emigres in the United States to start a U.S. tax deductible foundation to gather donations for Romanova's and others' families.

Andrew Mogilyansky, the organizer of the Nord Ost Fund for Victims and Hostages of Moscow Terror, said Monday that about $30,000 in donations have been collected in the past two weeks. And about the same amount has been pledged, pending the fund's registration as a charity, which he said should be finalized within days.

"As soon as we get registration papers, we will begin applying to Western corporate donors," Mogilyansky said by telephone from Bensalem, Pennsylvania. The fund also will then begin distributing the money, he said.

Shchedrina, who is on the fund's board, said she had received about $1,500, mostly from abroad, in direct donations for Romanova's family.

She said many people responded to her appeal in Russia as well. "I am amazed by how many people have responded," Shchedrina said. "Absolute strangers come, give money and ask to remain anonymous."

The U.S. foundation, which accepts donations by credit card, can be accessed at www.moscowhelp.org. The web site has a special page for those interested in specifically helping Romanova's family -- www.helpolga.org.
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