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Former EWU coach, living in Ukraine city under attack by Russia, contemplates his next move: ‘I will get out of here, but I will take care of my family’

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 25, 2022

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

Chris Hansen has been in his share of battles, but never a war.

The former Eastern Washington University football player and long-time Eagles coach is living in Ukraine a city under attack by Russian troops.

Hansen, who is originally from Spangle and graduated from Liberty High School in 1979, is living in the northern community of Kharkiv, just 26 miles from the Russian border. While the capital of Kyiv is the focus of the Russian effort to topple the government of Ukraine, Kharkiv is a city of 1.4 million people where there has been intense fighting.

“Pretty loud bombs today, north of me,” he said via text early Friday morning Spokane time – midafternoon in Kharkiv. “Seems like they are maybe 10-12 miles or so (away).”

Hansen played for EWU in 1983 and coached for 13 years until 2011, when he mutually left the program coached by Beau Baldwin. He was running backs coach for the Eagles in 2010 when EWU won the NCAA FCS title in Frisco, Texas. The team’s star running back, Taiwan Jones, is still in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.

Since then, Hansen has worked in Alaska in the fishing industry for Silver Bay Seafoods, based out of Seattle. He married a Ukrainian woman, but still works in Alaska for three to four months in the summer during the peak of the fishing season. He was set to return to the United States in March, but that is in question now – especially if a new regime takes over the country.

“Can’t get out,” he said. “I’m here for the duration.”

He takes solace that he is able to communicate with people back home.

“My family group text has been amazing and helpful,” he said. “My only regret is them worrying about me.”

Hansen and his wife, Victoria, and Victoria’s daughter Sonja, live in a fourth-floor apartment in the city. Like most similar dwellings built post-World War II and during the Cold War, it has a bomb shelter.

At least as of late Friday night in Ukraine, they had not had to retreat to it. Hansen said Victoria has learned that the bomb warning sirens in the city may not work.

“It’s Cold War construction,” Hansen said of the architecture of the area. “They are solid, and everything around here reminds me of what Russia would be during that era.

“It’s not real comforting, but I honestly feel safe,” he said via phone, in the late evening of the second night of fighting on the outskirts of the city.

“It’s loud, and as a 60-year-old adult, you understand what war means. There is death, injuries and civilians are going to be involved, no matter how hard they try not to involve them. Then you see the whole country getting lit up.”

With his job, he works and communicates on Pacific time – so he’s usually up at night anyway. Victoria works at night, too, serving an essential role in train transportation in the region.

He was up when it all began – first he feared a cyber attack because his internet connection went out. Then came the missiles and other bombs, plus a jet overhead.

“During the day it was game-on – it’s loud and it’s reverberating. You can hear how the war is progressing and moving to the west toward the city. Then it just stopped and there was nothing for a couple of hours. Then it was game-on again, but that evening it was just silent – there was nothing going on.”

The next day, battles resumed, but he noticed something.

“It started back up, but it was about 25 miles away. I thought to myself that the Ukrainians pushed them back and held their own. They held the line.”

Later in the day, he learned through news accounts of tanks on the northern end of the city. He heard that a tractor factory was blown up 3 miles away with “a huge amount of bombs dropped.”

“It’s just unbelievable how they orchestrated the shock and awe we have not really seen before,” he said. “Hitler did it and we did it in the Gulf War, but they hit every major city the first morning here with missiles, airdrops, bombs and jets. It was a very coordinated game.”

But he’s also noticed the fight in the Ukrainian people. In the capital city of Kyiv, civilians have been given firearms to defend themselves. He heard 18,000 weapons were handed out.

“This is a country of very proud people,” he said.

He said Ukrainians became united in 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine.

“They want to be a sovereign nation – you can tell by the way they’ve been fighting the past 48 hours,” he said. “They are definitely outnumbered and outgunned, but they are not quitting.”

Having visited Victoria on several occasions, they were married in Dnipro in Ukraine last October. They visited Kyiv as a mini-honeymoon, and were scheduled to leave Thursday for a longer one to Egypt before Hansen returned to Alaska. She’s applied to become a United States citizen, but the process will take another 17 months or so.

A history major while at Eastern, Hansen has not only seen the country firsthand, he’s learned more about it. There’s a nervous quiver in his voice as he talks about what has transpired over the decades since World War II.

“I started to pay complete attention to it,” he said. “I’m married to a Ukrainian and I’m living in this country. I was a history major, so this is all so interesting to me. In World War II, this city was taken, like, three times. And every time it happened, they just destroyed the city and there was nothing left. It was just rubble.

“It’s sad to see this nation encircled and attacked, and I don’t know all the reasons. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has concocted this story and he tells his nation what they need to hear so he’s the good guy. He’s going to put Russia back together like it was in the Cold War era, and it’s going to be at the expense of Ukraine.

“There was a period I was in the Air National Guard at the end of the Cold War. So I have a sense of truly what Russia was.”

Hansen hopes for the best, but fears the worst.

“I think we’ll wake up in the morning and it will be an absolute bloodbath in Kyiv,” he said Friday, about midnight in Kharkiv. “There are going to be civilian casualties there and it’s going to really shock us.”

As a football coach – Hansen said he is even known in the Alaska fishing industry as just “coach” – he’s been the underdog many times. Sometimes the good guys win, but …

“It’s not going to be a good ending,” he said. “This country is going to fall to Russia. There was going to be 200,000 troops by the time they got started, and they have a system that basically has surrounded the country. You can’t fly in or fly out of here without getting shot down.

“I think they take the capital, and then Putin will probably still keep going. He’s going to carve out what he wants to get out of this. Maybe in a week or so he’ll call for a truce, or he may just take it all. He might.

“There are a lot of smart people who know more than I do – I’m just surmising.”

Keeping Hansen hopeful is the number of concerned former coaches, players and staff from all the schools he’s worked for and with in the Inland Northwest. They have reached out to him in recent weeks, and especially the past few days. Jones was the first person to text Hansen to check on his safety when the invasion began early Thursday morning in Ukraine.

His internet came back a day after it went out, and he’s thankful for that. He also still has cell service, but isn’t sure for how long.

“I’ve been thankful to have a phone, to tell them I’m OK. People have been coming out of the woodwork.

“The group of family and friends that call and check up on me have all really said the same thing,” said Hansen, who has two daughters, Amanda and Chelsee. “They say that Chris Hansen gets into situations and Chris Hansen gets out of situations. If there is anybody who can do that, it’s me.”

But if his family had any say in it, he wouldn’t even be there.

“My family was telling me to get out,” he said of prior weeks when tensions escalated. “I needed to stay with my wife, and her daughter. I have a new family to look after.”

A year ago while visiting Ukraine, he had heard rumblings of troop movement.

“But when I came back over here to get married, it was talked about for sure. It was in the news.

“When I started to get concerned was Dec. 20, when I came back to spend the next three months here. I started to pay attention. There were 40,000 Russian troops, then there was 60,000, then 80,000 and 90,000. Honestly, I’d wake up and the first thing I would do was look at the news, see what I could dig up and see what was going on with the Russian army and Putin.”

In his new household, the feelings were mixed.

“My wife didn’t think Russia was going to attack, and I was on the complete opposite thought process. I don’t know why, I just thought everything they were doing pointed to invading Ukraine. My wife didn’t believe me until it happened.”

Hansen has reached out to the U.S. Embassy, and was surprised when they got back to him within 10 minutes of when he filled out his form online. Shortly thereafter, they called to check on him.

“It truly shows how America takes care of Americans,” he said. “Somebody actually knows I’m here and is checking up on me. I thought that was pretty cool.”

He’s enjoyed his time in Ukraine, learning the history and culture, and trying to make the language barrier work.

“I’m definitely an American here. I barely speak any Russian, which is interesting. I walk around Spokane and I know everybody, and I walk around here and nobody knows me. But the people are friendly; they try to talk to me and I just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘English.’

“It’s been a great challenge to even go grocery shopping. My wife and Sonja will not let me go shopping alone in fear of getting lost and not being able to communicate.”

But being an American comes with his concerns, too.

“I do need to leave. When this whole thing gets over, I need to be back to the States in March to start planning with my bosses, get ready for the season and run a golf tournament. I’m not sure how I’m going to get out of here. Will I be given any grief at the airport? As an American, I can’t think that they are going to be warm and fuzzy to me.”

In recent weeks, he’s been conflicted.

“About 12 days ago, I told my family I would leave. My daughters were crying, my brothers were putting pressure on me and others were, too. They didn’t want to lose me – I was going to be in a war, and they didn’t want that.

“My plan was to fly to Turkey and hang out there in case this happens, so I would be safe and my family didn’t have to worry about me. But I got sick, and I mean really sick – I had my own test kit so I knew it wasn’t COVID. But I was in no shape to fly. It turned out to be the flu and an inner ear infection, but I didn’t make my flight and that gave me more time to think about it. And I decided I couldn’t leave my wife and her daughter. I just couldn’t do it.

“At the same time, I tried to get her to go to Turkey, but remember, she doesn’t think they are going to invade. Meanwhile, I’m saying it’s going to happen and I started to put together bags of snacks and water, and she’s looking at me like I’m crazy.”

Hansen is weighing options for the three of them if they need to flee the city, but he is determined trying to get to Poland would not be safe.

Moving a couple of hours south to Victoria’s mother’s home is a better option.

Hansen’s story is just unfolding, but he’s convinced of a few things he’s learned from his days in Spangle, Cheney, Alaska, Ukraine and a number of other places his vagabond nature has found him.

“I’ve always been a servant leader and I’m here to help others. That’s who I am. Right now I’m just leading a family of two, and I’m going to do the best I can to keep us safe and make the right decisions.

“Under (former EWU head coach) Dick Zornes, I learned at Eastern you just get things done. All the friends and family reaching out are help to me right now.

“I told my family you had to trust me to get myself out of here. I will get out of here, but I will take care of my family.”

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