Investigation suggests 600 died in Russian attack on Mariupol theatre
Journalists worked with witnesses and experts to calculate much higher toll
Close to 600 people died in the Russian airstrike on the Mariupol drama theatre on March 16, evidence from an Associated Press investigation suggests. That is around twice the city government's initial estimate of 300, making it the deadliest single known attack against civilians in the Ukraine war.
AP journalists drew on accounts of 23 survivors, rescuers and people intimately familiar with the shelter operating at the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre. The investigation also relied on two sets of floor plans of the theatre, and photos and video taken inside before, during and after that day and feedback from experts.
Russia attacked the grand, columned Mariupol Drama Theatre on March 16. Hundreds of people were said to be taking cover there at the time and the word "children" was printed in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside to ward off aerial attack.
Witnesses and survivors walked AP journalists through a 3D model of the theatre, virtually navigating the floor plan to point out where people were sheltering room by room and how densely crowded each space was.
Sixteen direct witnesses, most of them who had been inside the theatre, said the building was packed at the time of the attack. According to The Associated Press, witnesses said that upward of 100 people were at the field kitchen outside the building, and that everyone there died.
Most accounts have estimated there were around 1,000 people were in the theatre at the time, while one witness believed there were just a few hundred people, and another put it closer to 1,300.
No one, including rescuers, saw more than 200 people escape alive, and most saw far fewer. Those numbers are in line with survivor estimates of 130 from Mariupol city officials and 150 from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Survivors escaped from the main exit or a side entrance because other areas of the building were crushed.
After constructing the 3D model, the AP went back to witnesses to check and adjust. Two war crimes experts reviewed AP's methodology of matching floor plans against witness descriptions, and concluded that it was as sound and definitive as possible in the absence of access to the site.
Two survivors estimated that around 300 had died, as authorities initially estimated, and the lack of bodies led a police officer and a Mariupol Red Cross official to speculate that the toll was fewer than 500.
But most witnesses claimed closer to 600 died, in line with the AP analysis of density, and suggested that the bodies were either pulverized into the dust or removed by the Russians. The AP also spoke with munitions experts during its investigation.
With communications severed, people coming and going constantly, and memories blurred by trauma, an exact death toll is impossible to determine.