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Harrowing 911 Calls Point to a Pitiless Moscow

Russia: Transcript reveals a desperate young man, trapped in a truck pulverizing trash, pleading for help but meeting skepticism.

January 26, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The young man was intoxicated but on his feet when he left a billiards hall early Jan. 9. But he later awoke to find himself tumbling inside a moving garbage truck, dodging massive blades slowly grinding collected refuse into pulp.

For 23 minutes, according to a transcript of a series of calls made on his cell phone to Moscow's 911 rescue service operators, 25-year-old Taras Shugayev pleaded and cried, saying he was being squeezed and begging for help.

But the operators only advised him to alert the driver by banging from inside the truck, and no discernible action was taken by Moscow's various police forces--which, according to one rescue service spokesman, dismissed the report as a prank.

"Are you in a joking mood to be calling us like this at 6 o'clock in the morning?" a police dispatcher reportedly said.

By his fourth call, during which the rescue service appeared focused mainly on trying to learn who might have put him into the truck, Shugayev was desperate.

"This is it, I think, I am suffocating. This is it," were the last words recorded.

Police didn't respond until more than 24 hours later, when the man was reported missing by his family. They retrieved his phone records and--with the help of the rescue service recordings--pieced together what might have happened. Now, in a grisly denouement to the drama, they are sifting through a suburban dump, looking for possible remains.

Shugayev's case, which came to public notice in Moscow newspapers this week, has sparked a criminal investigation and thrown an uncomfortable spotlight on the callous indifference that can mark everyday life in this often harsh city of 9 million people.

Was Shugayev stuffed into a garbage bin by muggers who regularly prey on drunks? Did some acquaintance throw him into a garbage truck as a practical joke? Were the people at the other end of the line too jaded, busy or tired to respond to the possibility that a life was in danger?

Father Is Shaken, Mother Still Hopeful

"I simply don't know who to blame," Shugayev's shaken father, Boris, said Friday. Meanwhile, the young man's mother, Raisa, still clung to the hope that her 6-foot-2 son would come strolling through her door.

"I am sitting here--waiting for him to call and say: 'Mom, it's me. I'm OK!' " she said.

"This horrendous story demonstrates once again that life is stranger than fiction, especially in Russia," said police expert and crime-fiction writer Marina Alexeyeva, who uses the pen name Alexandra Marinina. "Only in Russia could they hire complete lunatics and plain idiots to work in such a critically responsible agency as the rescue service, just because they pay their operators peanuts.

"The man is dying. He is calling the only people who can and should save him, and in return he is bombarded with the most stupid and immediately irrelevant questions--like who put him there and how can they get in touch with them."

Natalia Kochergina, a spokeswoman for the rescue service, said the investigation was continuing but asserted that her records show that the operators involved notified police within three minutes, as required. A Central Moscow traffic police spokesman disputed that account, saying the police have no log entry showing they were ever alerted.

"All the necessary phone calls were made. There is no doubt about it," Kochergina insisted. "The problem is that at 6 a.m., the police simply treated this report as a joke."

Of 15,000 calls each day to Moscow's 911, most are not real emergencies, and between 200 and 300 are pranks, she said.

"Shugayev's calls could have easily been taken for an act of hooliganism," Kochergina said. "Most often, this is what such calls turn out to be."

In incomplete transcripts published in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the caller reports his situation at 6:20 a.m. and at first is asked to explain how he got into the truck and then to say where the truck is heading.

"I am being turned and twisted here, but I am still alive. Please call the traffic police," he pleads.

The call breaks off. A minute later, a different operator answers the second call and asks again where he is.

"How am I supposed to know?" he answers. "It is totally dark in here."

The operator tells him to take matters into his own hands: "Can you identify your presence, so that the driver would stop the truck and help you out of it, young man? Have you got something to knock with? Where is the driver?"

"He can't hear me. I have found out already that he can't hear me!"

By the Third Call, Operator Seems Testy

The call disconnects again, and by the third phone call, at 6:31 a.m., the operator begins to sound irritated with the caller for not trying harder to alert the driver.

"I have nothing to knock with! I am being squeezed!" the caller explains.

"Your hands are free since you have been able to dial the number. Find something in the garbage," the operator says.

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