The full story of the seven resupply and rescue missions has yet to be told. But from exclusive interviews with two wounded survivors; a military intelligence officer who flew on the first mission; and pilot interviews provided by the Ukrainian army, The Associated Press has pieced together the account of one of the last flights, from the perspective of both the rescuers and the rescued.

As was his habit before each flight, the veteran Ukrainian army pilot ran a hand along the fuselage of his Mi-8 helicopter, caressing the heavy transporter’s metal skin to bring luck to him and his crew, AP reports.

They would need it. Their destination — a besieged steel mill in the brutalized city of Mariupol — was a death trap. Some other crews didn’t make it back alive.

Still, the mission was vital, even desperate. Ukrainian troops were pinned down, their supplies running low, their dead and injured stacking up. Their last-ditch stand at the Azovstal mill was a growing symbol of Ukraine’s defiance in the war against Russia. They could not be allowed to perish.

The 51-year-old pilot — identified only by his first name, Oleksandr — flew just the one mission to Mariupol, and he considered it the most difficult flight of his 30-year-career. He took the risk, he said, because he didn’t want the Azovstal fighters to feel forgotten.

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