AP Methodology: Calculating Mariupol theater airstrike dead

Marshall Ritzel and Lori Hinnant
Associated Press

Close to 600 people died in the Russian airstrike on the Mariupol drama theater on March 16, evidence from an Associated Press investigation suggests. That’s around twice the city government’s estimate of 300 in 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 Theater, as well as two sets of floor plans of the theater, photos and video taken inside before, during and after that day and feedback from experts. The AP used the information to create a 3D model of the theater.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on Saturday, March 19, 2022 shows the aftermath of the airstrike on the Mariupol Drama theater, Ukraine, and the area around it.

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Witnesses and survivors walked the journalists through the building virtually on the floor plan, pointing out where people were sheltering room by room and how densely crowded each space was.

Sixteen direct witnesses, most of them inside the theater, said the building was packed, with about one person for every 3 square meters (yards) of free space in the rooms and hallways. All said that upwards of 100 people were at the field kitchen outside the building, and that everyone there died.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the Mariupol Drama Theater in Mariupol, Ukraine on Monday, March 14, 2022.

Most said around 1,000 people were in the theater at the time. The outliers included one witness who believed there were just a few hundred people, and one who estimated around 1,300 people were inside.

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 Cooperation in Europe. Survivors escaped from the main exit or a side entrance because other areas of the building were crushed.

A view inside the Mariupol theater damaged during fighting in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022.

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 talked with two munitions experts.

With communications severed, people coming and going constantly, and memories blurred by trauma, an exact death toll is impossible to determine.