Soldiers wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, some missing arms and legs, were hoisted into the helicopters, whose rotors never stopped spinning. They lifted off with eight or nine wounded fighters that day, Flint said, some of whom were conscious enough to show off cellphone videos of the intense fighting they had endured.
The March 21 mission, captured on videos provided by Flint, lasted only 20 minutes on the ground. “There was just this feeling of happiness, emotional satisfaction that we were able to get these guys out,” Flint said.
In all, Operation Air Corridor, as the effort was known to participants, managed to land helicopters at Azovstal seven times during the next two weeks and rescue 85 gravely wounded soldiers, Flint said. A heavily sedated Sergeant Tsymbal was among those evacuated.
But the helicopters also brought in other soldiers, mostly volunteers, including Pvt. Nikita Zherdev of the Azov Regiment. His father had died in the shelling of Mariupol weeks earlier, and he wrote his sister before taking off telling her to learn to take care of herself. He did not tell her what he thought: that he did not expect to leave alive.
“As soon as we landed at Azovstal, I understood that, wow, things are really happening here,” he said. “Everything was covered in smoke. Everything was under fire. The people who greeted us, shouted, ‘Faster, faster, faster — there are airstrikes every five minutes, the jets are coming.’”
A native of Mariupol, Private Zherdev already knew the troops at Azovstal, but the men he found were withered specters of those soldiers, hungry and exhausted and covered in blood and gun oil after weeks of constant fighting. They were shocked to see him.