They are gassing us! We really beg not to be gassed. We hope it will not be like the Kursk!" As a thick, visible mist enveloped hostages and their takers in Moscow's House of Culture theater, Anya cried for help through her cell phone. The hostage thought she was about to suffocate slowly just like the sailors trapped aboard the crippled Russian submarine Kursk in 2000. "We see it, we feel it, we are breathing through our clothes. We are all going to be blown up!"
But the fast-acting sleeping agent being pumped into the theater was the key ingredient in a daring rescue raid. As early as Day One of the hostage standoff, diggers had been tunneling underneath the theater in preparation for an assault. Now in the early hours of Saturday, gunshots from inside had forced into action the waiting Spetsnaz commando troops in the elite Alfa and Vympel antiterror units of the Federal Security Service. The Chechen hostage takers, it seemed, were about to fulfill their death vow. They had sworn that if Russian President Vladimir Putin had not declared an end to the war in Chechnya by Saturday at dawn, they would start killing hostages. If they were assaulted, they made clear they were ready to blow up explosives plastered around the auditorium and strapped to their bodies.
But the rescue was precipitated by a small, unexpected act of impatience. After three days locked in the stuffy, smelly auditorium, an agitated young male hostage had had enough. According to one account, he threw a bottle at some of his Chechen captors and ran toward them. A gunman opened fire, missed the youth and hit another man in the eye. "There was blood--foamy. A girl was hit in the side," said Olga Chernyak, an Interfax news reporter among the captives. "It happened right where I was. I thought they would kill us all." As hostages screamed, recalled Chernyak, "The Chechen women were very happy the end was coming and that they would blow us all up. They told us, we have come here to die, and you will be going with us."
The 200-man team from Alfa and Vympel were ordered to set the hostages free in two hours. They donned white armbands to distinguish themselves from the Chechens wearing similar camouflage suits. Then they injected the sleeping gas through the building's ventilating system and holes bored underneath the auditorium, hoping to immobilize the gunmen and especially the explosive-laden women. A source close to the Alfa unit says that five times the required amount of gas was funneled in. "They used a lot, to be on the safe side," he says. "They were well aware of the repercussions for them should the gas attack fail." There was a shattering blast and the rattle of gunfire; then the troops smashed through doors, shooting down hostage takers still capable of firing back. Spetsnaz shot sleeping suicide bombers in the temple at point-blank range. "When a person wears two kilos of plastic explosive, we didn't see any other way of neutralizing them," said a member of the assault team. Ringleader Movsar Barayev sprawled dead on his back on stage with a Cognac bottle--strangely--by his side.