Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press
Taiymuraz Kallagov embraces his daughters, Vika, 13, left, and Olya, 8, at their home in Beslan, Russia, Wednesday.

BESLAN, Russia — There was a moment when Vika Kallagova could have fled the hellish maelstrom of bullets, screams and explosions that School No. 1 had become on the first day of September.

But the 13-year-old chose not to.

Her 8-year-old sister, Olya, was inside the school, trapped with hundreds of other children and adults by nearly three dozen heavily armed militants. So Vika went back in.

"Without me, I don't think she would have lived," Vika told The Associated Press Wednesday, with Olya beside her at their home in Beslan.

More than a month after the climax of the three-day hostage crisis, Beslan remains a town of immense sadness, filled with the wails of anguish of grief-stricken women and bleary-eyed men standing somberly at tables set for traditional meals of mourning. Nearly 340 people — about half of them children — died during the standoff.

But Vika's father finds hope in the fact that his two girls survived, thanks in part to his older daughter's bravery.

"I'm not sure where she gets it from. But she's our hero, our brave, brave hero," said her father, Taiymuraz Kallagov.

Like the hundreds of children arriving for the first day of classes, Vika and Olya were happily engaged in back-to-school rituals when militants began pouring into the school's main courtyard, firing guns and herding people into the building.

Panic erupted and Vika, along with about 30 classmates, ran into a nearby boiler room while the attackers were distracted. Some students managed to escape, jumping out first-story windows to safety. Vika was about to follow them when she realized she didn't know where her sister was.

"I couldn't leave," she said.

So Vika turned around and went inside the gymnasium, where the hostages were packed tightly as their captors strung explosives from basketball hoops and along the floors.

For the first day, Vika remained with her classmates, unable to get up and search for her sister for fear the militants would shoot her.

Early on the second day, Olya's teacher, Emma Kharaiyeva, caught sight of Vika and motioned for her to come over to the other side of the gymnasium. Pretending she was going to the toilet, Vika slipped to the teacher's side, where she found Olya asleep.

"She opened her eyes wide when I woke her up. She didn't say anything. Then she closed her eyes again," Vika said.

For the next day or so, she sat with her sister, often bored, thirsty and hungry, fearing for their lives.

On the afternoon of Sept. 3 — Olya's birthday — Vika was dozing on the floor beside her sister when there was a sudden explosion. The gym filled with smoke, and hostages began running and screaming. Part of the ceiling collapsed. Kharaiyeva, the teacher, covered Olya with her body as glass and timber fell around them.

A second explosion rocked the room, and Vika rushed for a door at the gym's corner, pulling Olya along. Her teacher, covered in blood, yelled at them: "I'm dying. Save yourselves." Vika saw another classmate trying to help a small child who had fallen to the ground after being shot.

The two girls hid in the cafeteria as ferocious gunfire erupted between the fighters inside the school and Russian security forces outside. As they cowered in a kitchen cupboard, Vika said she pulled a coin-sized piece of shrapnel from her left foot. She pulled more shrapnel from her sister's arm.

Vika doesn't remember how long they were in the kitchen before they managed to flee to the safety of Russian forces.

The girl's father said her bravery may come in part from the fact that her mother had died just seven months earlier and Vika was still steeling herself from the death.

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As the two girls sat on a couch Wednesday, Olya watched television and Vika looked at a photograph — it showed her sister lying on a stretcher with swollen red eyes, her left arm bandaged.

Olya sleeps fitfully since their ordeal, Vika said, sometimes crying out, "I want to go home."

For her part, Vika wants to study again, but she can't bring herself to go to classes — never mind returning to the remains of School No. 1, where she may have saved her sister's life.

"Now she doesn't go anywhere without me," she said.