BROVARY, Ukraine — A helicopter carrying top Ukrainian officials crashed in a fireball on Wednesday in a Kyiv suburb, killing a senior member of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s cabinet and more than a dozen other people, and dealing a blow to Ukraine’s wartime leadership.
The interior minister, Denys Monastyrsky, a trusted adviser of Mr. Zelensky who entered the government with him in 2019, died in the crash, along with his top deputy. Their deaths leave a vacuum atop the ministry in charge of domestic security, responsible for overseeing the country’s police, its national guard and border patrol units.
Mr. Zelensky called the crash, which occurred near a kindergarten, a “terrible tragedy” and linked the incident directly to Russia’s invasion of his country. Whether the deadly incident was accidental or not, “every death is the result of war,’’ he said in a passionate address, delivered by video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as he urged Western allies to move more quickly to provide support to Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos remotely on Wednesday.Credit…Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear but there was no initial information that the helicopter had been shot down. Ukrainian investigators have said they are looking into mechanical failure, pilot error or sabotage as potential causes.
The government provided conflicting accounts of the death toll during the day, but late Wednesday Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said that 14 people, including a child, had died. Nine of them were in the helicopter, officials said. The service said 25 people were being treated in the hospital, including 11 children.
The crash in Brovary, an eastern suburb of Kyiv, created a scene of chaos and horror at the kindergarten. The aircraft plunged to the ground just after 8 a.m., when parents were dropping off their children.
Smoke billowed from the charred rotors and other burning debris that was scattered near a playground. Part of the kindergarten was on fire. Mothers stumbled over broken glass, yelling the names of their children.
“There was a lot of panic,” said Anna Mayboroda, 37, who safely retrieved her 3-year-old amid the mayhem. “I started to yell the name of my daughter, too, because I didn’t know where she was.”
The episode was just the latest in a long string of tragedies for a weary country, coming just four days after a Russian missile slammed into an apartment building in the eastern city of Dnipro, killing 45 people in one of the deadliest attacks on civilians of the war.
The State of the War
- Western Military Aid: Kyiv is redoubling its pleas to allies for more advanced weapons ahead of an expected new Russian offensive. The Netherlands said that it was considering sending a Patriot missile system, and the Pentagon is tapping into a vast stockpile of American ammunition in Israel to help meet Ukraine’s need for artillery shells.
- Dnipro: A Russian strike on an apartment complex in the central Ukrainian city was one of the deadliest for civilians away from the front line since the war began. The attack prompted renewed calls for Moscow to be charged with war crimes.
- Soledar: The Russian military and the Wagner Group, a private mercenary group, contradicted each other publicly about who should get credit for capturing the eastern town. Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, has rejected Russia’s claim of victory, saying its troops are still fighting there.
Mr. Monastyrsky is the highest-ranking government official to die since Russia’s invasion began last February. He and other members of Mr. Zelensky’s brain trust had held together from the early days of the war. They had survived the initial assault on the capital, Kyiv, and what Ukrainian officials have said were Russian assassination plots, as well as multiple trips to front lines despite fierce fighting.
Mr. Monastyrsky, like Mr. Zelensky, took office pledging to root out the corruption that had long bedeviled Ukraine’s government, in particular the interior ministry’s history of operating as a separate political fief.
President Biden, in a message of condolences to the families of those who were killed, cited those efforts, saying that Mr. Monastyrsky and his team were engaged in “the vital work of reforms to strengthen Ukraine’s institutions through this war and into the future.”
“The United States stands with the people of Ukraine in the face of this tragedy, and for as long as it takes,’’ Mr. Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said that the government officials onboard had been traveling to a combat zone.
A witness told Suspilne, Ukraine’s national public broadcaster, that she had seen the helicopter on fire and spinning before it hit the ground. Another witness told Ukrainian media he heard the helicopter circling before the crash.
At the scene, crumpled, blackened remains of the helicopter, some of its seats still visible, lay in a heap on the sidewalk and street just in front of a building, all but unrecognizable except for the rotors propped against the structure. A partially crushed, burned car poked out from under the wreckage.
Videos and photographs posted from the immediate aftermath showed a long trail of fire, which could have been caused by spilled fuel. One photo appeared to show damage to the upper story of the kindergarten.
Ukraine’s Parliament said in a statement that those killed alongside Mr. Monastyrsky included Yevhen Yenin, the first deputy minister for internal affairs; and Yurii Lubkovich, the ministry’s state secretary.
Mr. Yenin had served in the international affairs section of Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office in 2019 when then President Donald J. Trump asked Ukrainian officials to investigate the Biden family while withholding military aid to Ukraine. Those events led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment by the House of Representatives. Mr. Yenin had opposed complying with the request.
Mr. Monastyrsky’s portfolio gave him authority over a broad array of Ukrainians participating in the conflict with Russia. More than 200,000 soldiers and special police in units under the Interior Ministry have fought in the war, although some of the direct command had transferred to the army. Mr. Monastyrsky, 42, was also a member of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, the organization setting security policy for Ukraine.
The ministry has also overseen rescue efforts after missile and drone strikes in Ukrainian cities, including a frantic attempt to find survivors in the rubble of the attack on Saturday in Dnipro. The ministry has also supervised teams clearing mines from recaptured territory, an operation in which dozens of people have been killed or maimed each month.
Mr. Monastyrsky, who worked as a lawyer before becoming a lawmaker, was elected to Parliament in 2019 as a member of Mr. Zelensky’s political party, Servant of the People. He became chairman of the committee on law enforcement, and then, in 2021, the interior minister.
His focus had been overhauling the country’s Soviet-legacy law enforcement system to stamp out corruption and provide better service. But, as with others in Mr. Zelensky’s government, he was thrust into a wartime leadership role after the Russian invasion in February last year.
“He was a very modest person, very brave,” Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, said of Mr. Monastyrsky on Wednesday. “There were no scandals around him. He was a good guy.”
Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, said on the Telegram messaging app that Ihor Klymenko, the head of the national police service, would carry out Mr. Monastyrsky’s duties until a new interior minister is appointed.
For the residents of Brovary, the helicopter deaths were another grim reminder of the hardships and tragedy of living through war. The town was already traumatized by months of Russian missile strikes, and early in the war a Russian ground assault reached the outskirts of the community before Ukrainian forces repelled it.
On Wednesday, war-weary residents stood around the cordoned-off site of the kindergarten, where windows were charred and broken, looking on with stony expressions. Cellphone videos of the immediate aftermath showed parents screaming.
Ms. Mayboroda had dropped off her daughter, Vika, and was walking home when she heard a “loud, crashing, banging noise.”
As she ran back for her daughter, she heard people yelling that the kindergarten on fire. She said she thought a Russian missile had hit it.
“I saw debris and smoke,” she said through tears. “I saw this scene and thought maybe my child no longer exists.”
Firefighters cordoned off the building, keeping back the crowd of panicked parents. After some time, one called out, “who is mother Mayboroda?” and returned her daughter, unhurt.
“They gave me my daughter back whole,” she said. “The most important thing is my child is alive.”
Yurii Shyvala and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.