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Escape from Ukraine: Former EWU coach finally has ticket to get him to Ukraine border

UPDATED: Mon., March 7, 2022

In this photo provided by Yurii Kochubei, a view of the damage after shelling on a sports venue, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022.  (Yurii Kochubei via AP)
In this photo provided by Yurii Kochubei, a view of the damage after shelling on a sports venue, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022. (Yurii Kochubei via AP)
By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

Monday wasn’t the time for what-ifs for an American working with his Ukrainian wife to escape war – even after learning of a bomb that landed close to the apartment they fled only a day earlier.

Chris Hansen, a former Eastern Washington University football player and coach, continued his temporary stay in the peaceful town of Poltava, Ukraine, on Monday. But he, his wife, Victoria, and his stepdaughter, Sonja, have secured transportation on a bus which is scheduled to leave at 3 p.m. his time Tuesday and arrive overnight Wednesday at the Ukrainian-Poland border at the main entry of Medyka.

At latest count, 1.5 million people have fled Ukraine for safety and become refuges, mostly in Poland where the bus will be headed. Hansen, who is not allowed onto government-run trains because he is an adult male, has received assurances that he will be allowed on the bus.

The bus will take them 605 miles across Ukraine – through the cities of Kyiv and Lviv but hopefully safely in the “humanitarian corridor” the Russians have agreed to. By comparison, it’s 540 miles from Spokane to Billings, Montana, via Interstate 90.

Airlines use a percentage to show customers their rate of on-time departures. In this case, Hansen says it’s “50-50.”

“I feel good about it,” he said Monday. “We have the departure date and time, the location of where to be to get on it, and where it arrives. It seems pretty legit.”

Security guards at the Poltava train station were the ones to alert Victoria and Sonja of the alternative groups of buses running to and from the Polish border. Late last week, while sequestered in their apartment in Kharkiv amid Russian bombing and artillery attacks, Hansen had thought a train out of the city to freedom was their best option. But Victoria, who actually worked in Kharkiv at a train transportation call center, thought otherwise.

“In retrospect, that was Victoria not telling me but making decisions,” said Hansen, who has seen pictures of throngs of people at train stations not just in Kharkiv, but Kyiv as well. “It was the right decision. She didn’t want to put us on a train.”

They made their escape from Kharkiv with little time to spare. Hansen learned Monday of a strike “40 to 50 yards from our apartment building” at about 5 p.m. Ukraine time.

Hansen still was trying to find confirmation and view video proof as the day in Poltava came to a close, but he said, “When these reports come out they’ve been pretty accurate.”

He believes the bombing was behind the apartment to the west near the building’s bomb shelter, “Which is by the doorway into the apartment. If that was a cruise missile, I doubt that building is there anymore,” he said.

Or, because their apartment was on the opposite corner of where the bomb hit, “Maybe it’s OK – there’s a chance.”

Asked about the what-ifs had they stayed: “We didn’t even bring it up.”

“I’m just hoping their belongings are still there. We came with only two bags, so everything they had we left. Pictures, jewelry and the rest of their life-long possessions are in that apartment.

“I worried about somebody breaking in, and in the back of my head thought it could get bombed,” he continued. “I think it might have happened.”

The trio left Kharkiv on Saturday after reaching the agonizing decision to flee two days earlier. Victoria has spent her entire life in the region, and Sonja has only been out of the country once for a vacation.

After being “scammed” by one bus service to get them out of Kharkiv, another transportation company provided free transportation for the trio to Poltava, about two hours away. They secured an Airbnb upon arrival.

Located 188 miles south of the capital city of Kyiv, the city of just under 300,000 – about 75,000 persons larger than Spokane – has been unharmed thus far in the war. But Hansen knows it’s only a matter of time before the Russians strike this city, too, after beginning the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“I look out over the city and that has absolutely been in my mind,” he said. “The photo I took doesn’t even show how stunningly beautiful this city is. They have great buildings and it’s clean – there is no trash anywhere. It’s one of the cleanest towns I’ve every seen in my life.”

He said on Sunday most shops and restaurants were closed, but on Monday they were open for business.

“It makes me sad to know this place is on the list,” he adds of what the future holds for the city .

Hopefully, Tuesday they will leave the city in their rear-view mirror. If they get scammed again, Hansen knows of transportation opportunities via private cars, but he’s wary of that mode.

“I really feel more comfortable getting on a 48-passenger bus with 70 people rather than getting in a car with a guy I don’t even know,” he said.

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