Editor’s note: Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, reporter Katie McKellar and photojournalist Scott Winterton are traveling with Utah’s trade and humanitarian delegation to Ukraine. This is the second in a series of reports.

Tiffany Vail got there first, two floors underground in the space that is better suited as a parking garage.

The co-founder and chief operating officer of Wander, a Traveltech platform, Vail and our Utah Trade Mission traveling group to Ukraine had been well briefed on what to do when the air raid sirens sound across Kyiv and the piercing Air Alert! app we’ve each downloaded goes into action. Think high-octane Amber Alert and you’ll know what the 2023 version of an air raid warning sounds like.

“Security Alert: Heightened Threat of Missile Attacks, Including in Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast,” reads the alert from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. We were told by embassy officials the day before to take the warnings seriously. Many of the residents here have grown somewhat numb to the sirens because of the excellent performance of the area’s missile defense system. And indeed, earlier that day a 4:30 p.m. raid didn’t stop pedestrians or even the government meeting the delegation was engaged in with the local leaders. Life goes on.

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Still, this night there had been a change: “In light of the recent uptick in strikes across Ukraine and inflammatory rhetoric from Moscow, the Department of State cautions U.S. citizens of an ongoing heightened threat of missile attacks,” the embassy released, with additional warnings of broad location.

The air alert alarms went off at 2:03 a.m. in Kyiv. The app came alive. And people slowly but deliberately made their way to the bunker — a space with water, chairs, tables but not much else.

2:17 a.m.: “Three UAVs moving at 150kph from north of Chernihiv to Kyiv.” 

2:22 a.m.: “Kyiv - air alarm” 

2:25 a.m.: “Kherson (Kherson Region) - explosions”

2:34 a.m.: “High probability of alarm in the Cherkasy region in the near future. UAVs coming in from the south.” 

“Welcome,” says Owen Fuller, who had made his way into the bunker quickly after Tiffany. Owen (you call people by their first names in a bunker) is the CEO of Marq, a Utah software company. But he’s also deeply tied into Utah’s startup tech community as adviser and investor, and earlier the day before he led a lunch conversation with key players in Ukraine’s tech community.

Levity is key to reducing stress, and Owen comes loaded with snack treats for the group. It turns more serious as others begin to arrive, some noting they heard explosions. There could have been three, but no one is quite sure. “Did anything hit the ground?”

2:41 a.m.: “Kyiv - air defense working.” 

The app gives continuous updates: “More UAVs (unmanned Aerial Vehicle) from the sea towards Odessa.” “Explosions - Kramatorsk, Sloviansk.”

At 3:06 A.M. comes this update: “Both in Odessa and in Kyiv, the enemy is trying to launch its UAVs from the water. In Odessa from the sea, in Kyiv from the Dnipro and reservoirs.”

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and others have made it into the shelter area. He wasn’t the only one wearing a baseball cap; you get out of bed, put on some clothes and come.

“I was going to come in slippers but I saw my husband putting on shoes,” says Svitlana Miller. She is a native of Kyiv and has made repeated trips here with her nonprofit, To Ukraine With Love, providing housing to those who have lost their homes and shelter.

Days in vans have cemented relationships among the group, and President Adams is no different. The question arises: Should the president of the Utah Senate be here?

He pauses with a smile. But 20 minutes later comes the answer:

“We’re here for a week. Should the president be here? I don’t know. But I shouldn’t cower. But on the other hand you need to make sure you use good judgement.” He then pauses and reflects on the people he’s met and the work being done here by the delegation.

“I wonder if the citizens of Utah really know what the rest of the world is dealing with,” he said, noting trips to Israel and now Ukraine. ”Do you stand by and not help? Not engage?”

He turns to the Deseret News, which joined the Utah delegation’s humanitarian and trade mission this week to document their efforts, and said, “You being here helps to expose that bubble we’re in and what the rest of the world is doing.” 

Executive Editor of the Deseret News Doug Wilks and Special Projects reporter Katie McKellar discuss story options as members of the Utah trade delegation in Kyiv spend a portion of the night and early morning in the shelter under threat of air attacks on Wednesday, May 3, 2023.
Executive Editor of the Deseret News Doug Wilks and Special Projects reporter Katie McKellar discuss story options as members of the Utah trade delegation in Kyiv spend a portion of the night and early morning in the shelter under threat of air attacks on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I’ve never heard them this close,” said Svitlana of To Ukraine With Love. She was born and raised in Kyiv before moving to the U.S., but this is her seventh trip back to her country since Russia escalated its conflict with Ukraine with a full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.

The next half hour or so is tense. No one is quite sure what to do or think other than to wait and see what happens. 

“We should have brought cards,” quips Owen, the Marq CEO.

As the delegation members wait, Svitlana is struck by a memory back home in the U.S. It was the Fourth of July, she and her family were settling in their camp chairs to watch fireworks. She had only just returned from a trip to Ukraine to provide aid, and her air alert app was still active on her phone. 

“I saw the map just start to go off, and it showed rockets dropping in Kharkiv and Kyiv and Kherson,” she recalled. “The phone kept going off, saying rocket attack, rocket drop.” At the same time, she said she was watching fireworks light up in front of her, and the moment struck her as surreal. 

“It was such a weird reality, to hear the fireworks with those giant eruptions … and watch the phone blow up with the rockets dropping … I just lost it.”

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, sits with other members of the Utah trade delegation in Kyiv, Ukraine, and talks as they spent a portion of the night and early morning in the shelter, May 3, 2023.
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, sits with other members of the Utah trade delegation in Kyiv, Ukraine, and talks as they spent a portion of the night and early morning in the shelter, May 3, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Hours pass, the conversation turns to politics but also to movies and philosophy. Some members of the delegation go upstairs in pairs to knock on the doors of some who slept through the alerts. “Should we let them sleep? What are actually the chances we would be hit?”

It’s a terrible calculation to make, yet one Ukrainians are making every day, based on their progress to win the war, and the pushback from “the invaders,” as they are often referred to.

Earlier that day, Russia claimed Ukraine tried to assassinate President Vladimir Putin with a drone strike on the Kremlin overnight — an allegation that was met with forceful denials out of Kyiv, with Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak warning, “Russian statements on such staged operations need to be taken as an attempt to create pretext for a large-scale terrorist attack in Ukraine.” 

This has to be taken seriously.

By 5 p.m. regions were being cleared and confidence grew for many to leave the shelter. Light was beginning to dawn in this Eastern European city. Then came the official word.

6:03 p.m.: “Attention, the air alert is officially over.” Everyone was out of the basement shelter by then, watching the Signal app carefully for updates. And in a nod to the resilience of the Ukrainian people, the announcement concludes, “and may the Force be with you,“ voiced by the Star Wars actor Mark Hamill.