The slick Broadway-style musical about World War II was in its second act when a mob of armed men stormed onto the stage. At least one spectator in the Moscow theater that night figured the intruders, who said they were from the breakaway republic of Chechnya, were part of the show. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, they worked the Chechen theme into the show so fluidly,’ ” says Svetlana Gubareva. “I didn’t understand that we were being taken hostage.”
The peril was real. For 58 hours—while the Chechen rebels demanded that Russian troops withdraw from their homeland—Gubareva; her American fiancé, Sandy Booker, 49, an electrician from Oklahoma City; and her 13-year-old daughter, Sasha, waited in terrified silence, hoping the siege would end without violence. “We weren’t planning on dying,” says Gubareva, 45. “We were going to live.” But on Oct. 26, when the Chechens threatened to execute hostages, commandos pumped a powerful narcotic gas into the building to knock out the occupants. It worked only too well: Members of Russia’s elite Alpha Force retook the building and killed almost all of 50 sleeping Chechen rebels, some of whom were wired with explosives. But the gas and gunfire also killed 120 hostages, including Booker and Sasha.
On the verge of marrying Booker and starting a new life with her daughter in America, Gubareva instead woke up in Moscow’s Hospital No. 7 the next day to the tragic news. “It is all one huge sorrow,” says Gubareva, choking back tears. “I ask myself why I was left alive, but I don’t find an answer.” Earlier on the day of the performance, she had been approved for a visa at the U.S. embassy, clearing the way for her to wed Booker, an auto plant worker, in December. “Sandy and Svetlana would have been perfect together,” says his Oklahoma Russian teacher Lucy Shropshire, who encouraged Booker to place the personal ad that first attracted Gubareva’s attention. “When he started corresponding with Svetlana he told me, ‘I’ve found her.’ ”
He had been looking for a while. Divorced since 1992, Booker, who has a 15-year-old daughter, Deborah, had tried before to meet a Russian woman through newspaper ads and the Internet, says Shropshire, 60, who gave Booker Russian lessons in exchange for help with her computer. “He could do anything, build houses, build computers,” she says of her intensely private friend. Halfway across the world, Gubareva—herself divorced and living alone with Sasha in the Kazakhstan city of Karaganda, where she works as an engineer at a coal processing plant—had been looking for love on the Web for three years when she came across Booker’s online ad. “Sandy didn’t mention weight or height, only some information about his hobbies,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘He’s looking for a human being, not a bimbo.’ ”
Gubareva, Sasha and Booker met for the first time in Moscow last summer, and at the end of the weeklong trip, Gubareva (who speaks some English) gladly accepted Booker’s proposal of marriage. Booker returned to Russia again last month to finalize arrangements. After their successful visit to the U.S. embassy on Oct. 23, Booker, Gubareva and Sasha were walking to their hotel when they impulsively decided to buy tickets to see a musical titled Nord-Ost. During the siege the trio stayed in their seats except for trips to a makeshift toilet. “We were afraid, but Sandy helped by telling us he loved us,” recalls Gubareva. By the third night she was sure they would go free because Booker was an American.
The next thing Gubareva remembers is waking up at the hospital—where three doctors had to restrain her after she learned her daughter had died. “I felt so horrible,” she says. As for her ill-fated romance with Booker, Gubareva has no regrets. “I remember my time with Sandy as something bright,” she says. “We had such a happy story, but with a sad ending.”
Simon Ostrovsky in Moscow and Kate Klise in Oklahoma City