ESCAPE FROM PENZA-19: A descriptive essay of classmate Lindsay Whitworth in Zarechny Russia (formerly known Penza-19 before the fall of the Soviet Union)
Lindsay Whitworth aspires to win a gold medal in gymnastics at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Her mother, Victoria, the silver-maned matriarch of the Whitworth family is Lindsay’s biggest fan and would love nothing more. When she’s not in training, Lindsay relaxes in her bedroom after school listening to music—High School Musical is her favorite. She also enjoys playing Hayday on her Ipad, and watching Sidemen on youtube.com. On the weekend, she chills with her friends at the local burger joint, Willie’s. She’s looking forward to wearing her favorite midnight black romper and beat up Converse All-Star high-tops this weekend.
Lindsay cherishes her family and simple life in Carmichael, California, but she dreams of bigger things. She imagines herself driving her dream car, an iridium silver Range Rover with chrome 22s, and living a glamorous and exciting life far away from the humdrum of Sacramento. She has no idea just how to get started in living up to her grand aspirations.
“Beep . . . beep . . beep . . . OH, JUST GO AWAY! . . . I hate that stupid alarm clock!” Lindsay yelps in her grumpy voice. Okay, so she’s not exactly what you might call a morning person, but today is the big day. It’s Friday, the twenty-second of September. Lindsay and Marcie Joe Thomas, another aspiring Sacramento area gymnast, will be jet setting halfway around the world to a gymnastics event in Moscow, Russia. Lindsay secretly views this as her first step to stardom.
Passport, tickets, itinerary…check, check, check. are all accounted for. Lindsay’s all packed, but she’s far from ready to go. She still has a few mental loose ends to tie up. Lindsay’s never flown on an airplane before. The thought of flying 30,000 feet above the ground absolutely terrifies her. She dreads the thought of being so far away from home in a strange land, but she also knows that she will have to overcome such phobias to realize her dreams.
“Three, two, one, blast off,” Marcie Joe whispers in her ear. Lindsay is not amused. “Ready or not here we come, Moscow.” Marcie Joe proclaimed. Lindsay slid her hand up from her mouth to cover her eyes, leaned forward slightly, and reached for the folded white bag inside the seat back in front of her. A few hours later, when the nausea subsided, Lindsay nodded off.
Prisoners in a Foreign Land
A tall, dark-haired man with ghost-like grey eyes is standing in the aisle of the plane shouting incessantly in a raspy voice. It sounds like gibberish: “Ne delay nichego glupogo, i nikto ne postrada . . . . Ne delay nichego glupogo, i nikto ne postrada” “Huh? What?” Lindsay was suddenly startled awake. “What on earth is going on, Marcie Joe?” “OMG! He has a gun!!!!”
Bronia Bierwicz, the Polish gymnastics coach traveling with Lindsay whispers in Lindsay’s ear “Please, try to calm down, I think we are being hijacked.” Coach Bierwicz explains that the man is speaking Russian and saying, “Don’t do anything stupid and no one gets hurt.”
“Attention, this is your captain speaking. The plane has been um, uh, diverted and will soon be landing in Zarechny, Penza Oblast.” Lindsay thinks to herself, “Where on earth is Zarechny, Penza Oblast? I’ve never heard of it.” She was not alone. Zarechny, formerly known as Penza-19, is a remote closed administrative-territorial formation, commonly referred to as a “closed city,” in the former Soviet Union. No foreign visitors are allowed into Zarechny without the permission of the Russian government—and that never happens. Zarechny’s main employer, Rosatom, manufactures nuclear weapon components for the Russian government.
About thirty minutes later, the plane began its final descent into Zarechny. The captain came on the speaker again, “Brace yourselves, we’re in for a bumpy landing.” Apparently, the runway at the Zarechy airport had not been maintained for more than a decade. The jumbo jet slammed to the ground and bounced like a yo-yo. The reverse thrusters began to roar before the jumbo airliner finally bounced to a stop. Before anyone could celebrate this miracle, a group of ten or twelve men carrying what looked like AK-47 rifles boarded the plane and began placing canvas potato sacks over the heads of all the passengers. Lindsay was terrified! All 96 of the passengers were all led off the plane and boarded onto a large tractor trailer truck. After they were crammed in like sardines, the door was slammed shut. The stench of livestock permeated Lindsay’s nasal cavity going directly to her brain. The truck drove for nearly three hours before coming to a stop.
Things Go From Bad to Worse
The close quarters made it very difficult to breath. Lindsay struggled to expand her chest cavity and draw in enough oxygen into her lungs. It grew colder and colder as the hostages remained in total darkness in that truck for more than a day. The following evening, one of the armed men opened the door about twelve inches and slid in a tray of three loaves of bread and plastic liter jug full of water. How would this possibly feed 98 people? It couldn’t. Lindsay privately thought to herself “I would die for a cheeseburger and fries” while the rest of the passengers were, no doubt, merely hoping not to die and would have gladly settled for one more morsel of bread just to stay alive.
The crack of daylight soon shined through a crevice in one of the ceiling rivets. Morning had arrived. Lindsay had not slept a wink that night. It was impossible to get comfortable on the cold and hard wooden floor and Lindsay worried she might never awake again if she closed her eyes. Gore, a toe-headed eight-year-old lad and the only child among the passengers had no such problem. This all must have seemed like a game to a child.
The lack of adequate nutrition was beginning to wear on us. Most of the passengers could barely move a muscle that day as they sat motionless on the truck floor. Lindsay could tell it was night again because the crack of daylight shining through the ceiling rivet faded and then disappeared. A few hours later, Lindsay heard the sound of the men approaching the truck. She crawled towards the truck door and leaned against it to listen in on what the men were saying. Just then, the door sprang open and Lindsay plummeted to the ground nearly six feet below. “Umph!” You could hear the air rush out of her lungs. A scrawny young guy with murder in his eyes quickly approached Lindsay. He then pulled her up by the hair and pointed his rifle right in her face.
“Cron!” shouted a big burly man with a black woolen beard. The other men froze in their tracks. It was clear that the burly man was in charge, as he waved his hand downward directing Lindsay to get down. “Syad’te! Syad’te!” he barked. Frightened for her life, Lindsay dropped to the ground. The big man then received a message on the radio attached to his belt. A raspy voice rang out. It sounded like the tall, dark-haired man with ghost-like grey eyes who had hijacked the plane. “Problemy bistro,” he shouted through the radio in a troubled tone. The big man then pointed to the door and headed out. The others quickly fell in line. The scrawny guy looked back at Lindsay on the way out and muttered “Durak,” which roughly translates to “fool” in English.
Lindsay’s close call earlier that evening and the dwindling rations of food left the passengers with an increasing sense of urgency. They knew that they would have to figure something out soon. Staring up at the ceiling of the truck each night in her sleepless daze, Lindsay had somehow noticed a ventilation hatch.
The diameter of the ceiling vent was barely larger than Lindsay’s shoulders and the ceiling was more than 12 feet high. Lindsay asked two of the taller male passengers, John Peterson and Henri Lamond, if they could hoist her up to the vent so that she could use her gymnastics skills to open the vent and swing through the opening to escape. A few hours later that evening, the plan was put into action. To her surprise, the vent came off rather easily and Lindsay was able to pull herself up and out of the truck.
Lindsay laid frozen for nearly 20 minutes up on the roof of the truck as she tried to figure out the timing of the lighthouse-like spot light shining from a distant structure. The search light shined upon a fence in the distance and large factory of some sort just beyond. It was then that Lindsay saw a white metallic sign with large red letters that read “Опасность! Радиоактивная область за пределами. Нарушители будут расстреляны без предупреждения! “ She recognized the Cyrillic alphabet and knew that it was used by the Slavic people of the former Soviet Union, but she had no idea what the sign said. Lindsay would later learn the translation to English “Danger! Radioactive area beyond. Trespassers will be shot without warning!”
Lindsay somehow managed to go undetected up on the roof of the truck. When she was sure that no one is watching and the search line was shining the opposite direction, Lindsay leaped from the roof and stuck the landing as she had done dozens of times in her balance beam dismount.
Lindsay’s hands were now trembling in the bitter cold, but her palms were getting sweatier by the minute. Here mind wandered, “Where on Earth am I? How on earth did I get to this wretched place?” She had to get a grip. “Run . . . run” she thought, but her legs would not respond. “Kerpow,” she heard gunshots ring out. It jolted her into action. She raced for the forest tree line like her life depended on it—because it did. The forest was nearly two miles away, but the rush of adrenaline made it feel like a 100-yard dash.
Grandpa Joe’s Training Comes in Handy
Lindsay heard the roar of a large vehicle approaching her. The light shined just above her as she dove into the pile of leaves in the forest floor. The smell of mildew was overwhelming. Cold and afraid, she lied motionless as the light of the full moon glistened on nearby stream.
When Lindsay was a little girl, her Grandpa Joe, a World War II veteran, taught Lindsay Morse code. She recalled how she had once read an article in Popular Science which explained how to “hotwire” a mobile phone to send Morse code from any location in the world and turn it into a homing beacon for use in case of emergency. Lindsay retrieved her rose gold Iphone 7 from her tattered pocket. She pried off the with her fingernail, rerouted the microprocessor interface cable, and shorted the SIM card in sequence to squelch out an SOS signal in Morse code before converting the device to a homing beacon and hiding it under a pile of slate stones.
Exhausted and starving, she started to nod off in her foliage cocoon. “Rat, tat, tat.” The sound of automatic machine gun fire rang out for nearly an hour off in the distance near the truck. Lindsay is too tired and afraid to emerge from cover. She fell asleep. When day broke, Lindsay could see a red, white, and blue flag waving from an armored personnel carrier and a dozen or so Navy Seals surrounding the truck where the hostages were being held. It was then that she realized that her plan had worked and the nightmare was finally over.
Home Sweet Home
Two days later, Lindsay, Marcie Joe, and the rest of the hostages arrived home in Sacramento. As the fierce Delta breeze whipped her long silvery locks across her face, Lindsay’s mom waited anxiously with the rest of the huge crowd at the SMF tarmac, She was so proud of her little girl. Most of all, she was so relieved to have her back home safely.
Lindsay got her wish that day. She is now quite famous, but not in a way she ever imagined. The mayor of Sacramento presented Lindsay with a key to the city and American Airlines gave her a check for $100,000 to reward her for her act of heroism. The next day Lindsay wore her midnight black romper and Converse All-stars on the Today Show. She had arrived.
As she drove off the car dealer’s lot, she could hardly believe that she was really driving her dream car. She pinched herself to make sure it was real, and then shouted out the window “Hey mom, come hang out with us at Willie’s for a cheeseburger and fries.” Lindsay could not help but think to herself “Boring never felt so good.”