- Paramedics race to help a homeless man saved by a good Samaritan
- Doctor: Some victims of the cold are alcoholics, others mistakenly drink to keep warm
- Ukraine’s emergencies minister says 9 out of 10 of the deaths have been alcohol-related
- Temperatures throughout Europe are significantly lower than average for winter
Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) — Suffering in the grip of a brutal winter where temperatures have not risen above freezing in nearly a month, Ukraine has seen a wave of deaths related to the cold, and the country’s ambulance service is inundated with calls for help.
On one recent night, emergency services raced through the streets of the capital Kiev in response to a call about a homeless man passed out in freezing weather.
The man got drunk and either fell asleep or dropped unconscious outside. He could have frostbite.
Vladimir Poddubniy, a passerby, found him, brought him indoors and called for an ambulance.
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When paramedics arrived, they found the homeless man, who gives his name simply as Kostya, squatting drunk on the floor. His hand is so swollen, he can barely hold his cigarette.
Poddubniy, who found Kostya, said the homeless man was freezing to death, so he brought him inside.
“I felt sorry for him. But I also didn’t want to find a body in the morning,” Poddubniy said.
While his rescuer explained, the paramedics determined Kostya needed emergency hospital care for frostbite, and helped the intoxicated man to his feet.
Kotsya was so drunk, he could barely walk down the stairs.
But in a country where the cold has claimed at least 112 lives in the past month — 90% of them alcohol-related, according to the government — Kostya can consider himself lucky to be alive.
About 3,000 people have been hospitalized because of the cold since January 27, officials said.
Authorities in Ukraine have set up an emergency hospital to deal with people suffering from cold-related conditions, and distributed 3,000 emergency relief tents across the country, they said. The tents are heated, and people with nowhere else to go can get hot food and drinks.
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Dr. Anatoliiy Vershigora, doctor-in-chief at an emergency help station in Kiev, said many of those suffering frostbite, hypothermia and in some cases death were alcoholics — but others had been drinking in the mistaken belief it would help keep them warm.
Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, has more than 14,000 homeless people, among the most vulnerable to winter’s bitter chill, authorities said.
“It is an unfortunate fact that a lot of homeless people are alcoholic or dependent on other substances — it may be why they are homeless in the first place,” said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Red Cross in Europe.
“Alcohol creates the illusion of being warm, so it’s not surprising that people are drinking and not surprising that they pass out,” he said, adding that this is when hypothermia can occur.
“Our approach would be to try to get to these people before they have too much to drink, if we can find them and get them to safety. Obviously, a full belly or hot drinks is far, far better for you than vodka.”
Red Cross volunteers have been working with authorities to help distribute warm clothing, boots, hot food and drinks in the Ukraine and elsewhere, Lowry said from Slovakia.
But, he added, the people who are most in need of help are often hard to locate.
“These people are outside the normal safety nets, difficult to find, and don’t realize the great danger they are in.”
Kiev marked its 25th consecutive day of below-freezing temperatures Thursday. It would normally expect a high of minus 2 degrees Celsius at this time of year, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
And there is little respite in prospect for those suffering in the unusual cold.
Another surge of frigid air is pushing westward out of Russia into the rest of Europe for the end of the week, with Central and Eastern Europe catching the brunt of the coldest air, Miller said.
Temperatures in some of the hardest hit countries, such as Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and Serbia will once again drop below average by as much as 15 to 20 degrees Celsius (25 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit).
Temperatures are likely to remain below average well into next week, at the least, with no significant warming likely until late February, Miller said.
Parts of the Danube River, one of the most important rivers in Europe for commerce, have nearly frozen over for the first time in 25 years, showing not only the intensity of this cold snap, but also its longevity.
The sustained cold spell is also putting a strain on power providers across the region and has raised questions over Europe’s reliance on Russia for gas as supplies sent via Ukraine have dipped below the expected levels.
Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuri Boyko said electricity consumption in the country is historically high.
But in an interview with CNN, he rejected suggestions that Ukraine has been siphoning off gas as it transits from Russia to Europe.
Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, has denied sending lower volumes of gas to Europe.
At least 250 people have died across the region during the cold snap.
CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.