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In Russia, A Deadly Sewer Collapse Exposes Serious Infrastructure Decay

The recent drowning of a toddler in Bryansk has turned national attention to the city's decrepit sewer system. But Russia’s infrastructure problems are nationwide. At least 10 cave-ins – like the one that killed 18-month-old Kiril Didenko – have

An 18-month-old baby died after he was sucked into this sewer hole with his mother.
An 18-month-old baby died after he was sucked into this sewer hole with his mother.
Yelena Vorobeva

BRYANSK -- Earlier this month, Tatyana Didenko, 26, was strolling down the sidewalk in the southwestern Russian city of Bryansk, pushing her toddler son in his stroller. Suddenly, the ground below her feet gave way, dropping the mother and 18-month-old Kiril into a fetid abyss.

By her own account, Tatyana fell about 20 meters with the stroller into a sewer pipe. Fighting a strong current, she forced her way back to the opening and thus barely avoided being sucked deeper into the sewer system and drowning. Standing nearby were several people who knew the woman. They called her husband, Vladimir Didenko, the ranking lieutenant on the local police force, who was working about three kilometers away.

He arrived minutes later. On his way, Vladimir stopped other drivers, looking for ropes. When he arrived at the scene, he secured himself with the ropes and went in to pull out his wife. A couple minutes later, the rescue operation finally succeeded, and Tatyana, with the stroller she was still holding, was pulled to freedom. Only when she was freed from the sewer did she realize her son, Kiril, was no longer in the stroller.

For the next 27 hours, 16 special brigades, around 500 people in total, searched for the child in 59 different manholes along the eight-kilometer-long sewer system. At around 5 p.m. the following day Kiril's lifeless body finally appeared.

"That is my daughter and grandson who fell through the ground!" Kiril's grandmother said, gesticulating angrily. "We are always hearing on the television about how they put a billion rubles here and a billion rubles there. So why do we have roads that children fall through and die?"

Tragedy waiting to happen

A week later, repairs are underway to fix the old concrete sewer that swallowed Kiril. There's a loud rumbling sound as construction workers operate a specialized machine to replace the crumbling sewer pipes with new plastic ones. The repairs were supposed to have happened more than 20 years ago. Nearby are several New Year's trees. In Russia, decorated pine trees are put up for New Year's, not Christmas. Hanging from one of the trees is a photograph of the drowned baby, who smiles down on the pipes and the civil servants working to replace them.

Across the street from the square is the cemetery, where another tragedy could easily have happened. Ditches dug there revealed exposed, corroded pipes. The city's sewer director, standing at the side of the ditch, refused to answer questions about the tragedy, complaining that he was busy and had already been approached 28 times by the media.

But what is really going on? The local director of the state-owned sewer company, it turns out, issued a warning two years ago that the pipes were extremely outdated and needed to be replaced immediately. But the city, which is chronically short on money, says it could not afford to replace the sewer system. A sewer upgrade had been planned in 1987, but the city never followed through.

Over the course of the search operation, the city discovered that holes in the sewer pipes are widespread, and that another accident, with more victims, is possible.

It's still not clear what exactly this tragedy will change for Bryansk, although people in the city report that they are checking under their feet much more carefully. Three city officials have since resigned, and the regional utilities' chief has been fired. But that does not mean that the city will be forced to take a more proactive stance on sewer repairs. Bryansk's approximately 400,000 residents may just have to live with the threat of being swallowed up by the earth at any moment.

What's perhaps even more disturbing is that this isn't the first time a sewer hole has swallowed up Russians. There have been at least 10 similar instances across Russia in the past two years, including one last August, when a Hyundai fell through a road during heavy rain in the city of Samara. The driver died.

Read the original article in Russian

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