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Unique AP visual investigation points to 600 dead in airstrike on Mariupol theater

At left, residents of Mariupol, Ukraine, wait for food at the field kitchen outside the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre, March 9, 2022.. The theater was in use as the city’s main bomb shelter when a Russian airstrike destroyed much of the building on March 16. Survivors say at least 100 people were at the field kitchen at the time of the attack; none of them survived. At right, on March 17, one day after the attack, rubble covers the area where the field kitchen stood. Survivors say about 1,000 people were in the building at the time of the airstrike. AP’s reconstruction of the incident shows about 600 people died in the attack.on March 17, 2022, in Mariupol, Ukraine. The March 16, 2022, bombing of the theater stands out as the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date in the Ukraine war. (Lev Sandalov via AP) AP Photo / Alexei Alexandrov

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In the latest in a continuing series of stories documenting potential war crimes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict,a deeply reported,innovative and meticulous AP investigation broke the news that the deadliest apparent war crime so far in Ukraine — the Mariupol theater airstrike — killed twice as many people as previously thought — 600 or more.

AP’s first full-blown visual investigation drew on the accounts of 23 survivors,two sets of floor plans,photos and video taken inside the destroyed theater,and a 3D model of the theater created with input from experts. The AP team calculated the density of people in different places in the theater at the time of the attack, running the findings by witnesses and consulting with experts on the methodology.

Lori Hinnant,Paris-based member of AP’s global investigations team,launched the reporting,working with video journalist Mstyslav Chernov and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko — both of whom had reported from Mariupol in the early weeks of the Russian assault on the city — to track down survivors,then interview and re-interview them. Survivors were especially hard to reach because Mariupol is no longer accessible,but the recollections of the people the team did find were essential to research on the attack and the texture of the project,which would not have been possible without photographer Evgeniy Maloletka’s portraits of survivors and his efforts to source independent video and photos of the theatre before it was ever a bomb shelter,when it was filled to the brim with those sheltering in place, and in the aftermath of the airstrike.

Digital media journalist Marshall Ritzel spent long days transforming all the reporting into a 3D model of the theater and talking through the project’s methodology in an impressive example of how visual investigative techniques can advance a story. His powerful animated diagrams with annotations complemented the text reporting and the other visual formats. Top stories photo editor Alyssa Goodman pulled all the elements together in an arresting presentation.

The resulting package offered a vivid,detailed narrative of the events inside the theater on March 16,including elements that had not previously been reported,such as the story’s lead — a woman clad only in a bathrobe,covered in plaster dust,walking atop bodies to escape.

The story was widely used by members,with AP cited in headlines by prominent news organization. The piece earned more than 200,000 pageviews on AP’s digital platforms.

For an investigation that harnessed the power of all formats to break news on the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date in the Russian war on Ukraine,the team of Hinnant,Ritzel,Chernov, Stepanenko and Goodman is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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