Rescue helicopters evacuated dozens of people from snow-blocked villages in Serbia and Bosnia and air-lifted in emergency food and medicine as a severe cold spell kept Eastern Europe in its icy grip.
The death toll from the cold rose to 79 on Wednesday and emergency crews worked overtime as temperatures sank to minus 32.5 C (minus 26.5 F) in some areas.
Parts of the Black Sea froze near the Romanian coastline and the rare show fell on Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea. In Bulgaria, 16 towns recorded their lowest temperatures since records started 100 years ago.
In central Serbia, choppers pulled out 12 people, including nine who went to a funeral but then could not get back over icy, snow-choked roads. Two more people froze to death in the snow and two others are missing, bringing that nation’s death toll to five.
“The situation is dramatic, the snow is up to five meters (16 1/2 feet) high in some areas, you can only see rooftops,” said Dr. Milorad Dramacanin, who participated in the helicopter evacuations.
One of the evacuees was an elderly woman who had fallen into a coma. She survived after being airlifted to a hospital.
Two helicopters were also used Wednesday to rescue people and supply remote villages in northern Bosnia.
“We are trying to get through to several small villages, with each just a few elderly residents,” said Bosnian rescue official Milimir Doder. “All together some 200-300 people are cut off. We are supplying them for the second day with food and medication.”
Some villages have had no electricity for two days and crews were working around-the-clock trying to fix power lines.
“The snow is about two meters high (6 feet) and we have cleared off paths that look more like tunnels,” Doder said. “It is going well but if there is more snow coming, then the situation may get critical.”
Ukraine alone reported 43 deaths, mostly of homeless people. The country’s Emergency Situations Ministry said 28 people had been found dead on the streets, eight died in hospitals and seven in their homes. Over 720 others were hospitalized with hypothermia and frostbite.
Ukraine’s 1+1 channel broadcast footage of a man being treated for frostbite in his toes, which had turned completely black.
Authorities have deployed over 1,730 heating shelters across the country, handing out hot tea, coffee, boiled potatoes and pork fat – a traditional Ukrainian dish – to the homeless. Hospitals were told not to discharge homeless patients even if their treatment was finished to protect them from the cold.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov urged Ukrainians to stay vigilant, dress warmly and help each other in the face of the severe weather.
“I call on citizens, enterprises, organizations not to be indifferent, to support and protect those people who cannot help themselves in this difficult time,” Azarov said in a statement Wednesday. “We are one people.”
His comments after some experts suggested Ukraine’s high death toll was linked to authorities’ unwillingness and incompetence in dealing with the homeless.
Pavlo Rozenko, an expert on social policy with the Kiev-based Razumkov Center, said Ukrainian authorities often suffer from the Soviet legacy of viewing the homeless as alcoholics, drug addicts and do-nothings who need to be punished instead of helped.
“The country doesn’t know yet how to take care of its homeless,” Rozenko said.
In Romania, temperatures plunged to minus 32.5 C (minus 26.5), and six homeless people died in the past 24 hours of hypothermia, the health ministry reported. Hundreds of other people were sent to shelters to protect them from the extreme cold.
Five people died of hypothermia in the last day in Poland, bringing its toll up to 20 since Friday.
Several schools across Hungary suspended classes, including one in the east that said it could not afford the high heating bills.
In Russia, temperatures fell to minus 21 C (minus 6 F) in Moscow but only one person was reported to have died of the cold.
Despite the freezing temperatures, Gyorgy Schirilla, a 50-year-old sportsman, said he would go ahead with his annual swim on Saturday with no protective gear cross the Danube River – a distance of 500 meters (yards) – in the northern Hungarian city of Vac.
“I’m not afraid of the challenge,” Schirilla said. “This will be my 15th crossing. Two years ago … I had to fend off ice floes weighing several tons.”
(Maria Danilova from Ukraine, Alison Mutler from Romania, Aida Cerkez from Bosnia, Monika Scislowska from Poland, Pablo Gorondi from Hungary and Jovana Gec from Serbia contributed to this report.)
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