Theater ordeal destroyed a dream

Published: Friday, Nov. 1 2002 10:05 a.m. MST

MOSCOW — On a celebratory impulse last Wednesday, Sandy A. Booker, an electrician from Oklahoma, and his Kazakh fiancée bought theater tickets at a subway station here.

That morning, Svetlana Gubareva, who had met Booker through a dating service, had passed an interview at the U.S. Embassy. She was told she would receive a visa for a new life with Booker and her daughter in America.

"We were in a very good, festive mood," said Gubareva, 45. "We were going toward the metro, and there was a kiosk, where we bought tickets to the musical."

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and a fateful one. That night, Chechen terrorists took the theater audience hostage. The new family lived through three nights of captivity. But a rescue by Russian forces that used gas left Booker, 49, and Gubareva's daughter, 13, dead.

Thursday night, in an interview on the NTV network in Russia, Gubareva spoke of her captivity.

During the siege, "we always supported each other," Gubareva said. "We were so happy that we could not believe something bad might happen to us."

Booker worked at the General Electric plant in Midwest City, Okla. His colleagues said he planned to change his shift to spend more time with his new family.

The captives were not allowed to move about, and used the floor of the orchestra pit for a toilet.

Then, early Saturday, between 1 and 2 a.m., Gubareva said, the guerrillas' leader handed the couple a mobile phone and told them to call the American Embassy to arrange a time for them to be retrieved from the building. The foreign hostages were to be freed, a promise the Chechens had already made — and broken — twice. The time was set for 8 a.m. Saturday.

"We relaxed and fell asleep in expectation of happiness," Gubareva said on television.

But neither Booker nor Alexandra survived the gas. Booker was declared dead by the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday. Letyago was one of the first to be declared dead by the Russian authorities.

In footage Thursday evening, Gubareva was carrying her daughter's photograph in the funeral procession in Moscow. Flowers adorned the coffin, and snow fell softly in the wooded cemetery.

When asked why Gubareva buried her daughter, a Kazakhstan native, in Moscow, she answered: "When we were in Moscow for the first time three years ago, she was impressed by the city. She said, 'Mama, I want to live in this city.' "

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