Ridgefield filmmaker documents rescue of American man from Ukraine: ‘It was very surreal’

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

RIDGEFIELD — William Goins was sleeping when an air raid went off in a hotel he was staying at in the city of Kryvyi Rih. Ukraine.

“I was in a dead sleep. It kind of took me by surprise. I wasn't prepared for it, mentally,” said Goins, 63, adding that was the only time when he was in Ukraine that he felt fear.

Goins, a 30-year-filmmaker and founder of GoShow Entertainment, returned earlier this month from Mylove, Ukraine, where he documented the rescue of an American man and his Ukrainian wife and mother-in-law.

The man, Kirillo Alexandrov, 27, was born in Michigan and had been living in Ukraine when it was invaded by Russia.

In late March, while Alexandrov was planning to evacuate Ukraine with his family, he was arrested by Russians and accused of many criminal charges including espionage and other charges related to allegedly spying for the U.S. government. Alexandrov has denied the accusations, according to USA Today.

During that time, he and his wife, who was also accused of crimes, were beaten and abused, according to Goins and other media coverage of the rescue.

While Alexandrov was initially imprisoned, through the efforts of Project Dynamo — a private, donor-funded evacuation organization, he was eventually released from prison and allowed to remain in his own home in Ukraine as long as he didn’t leave it, Goins said.

The U.S. state department did not return a request for comment.

The project

After reading about Project Dynamo in the news, Goins reached out to the organization, wanting to learn more about it.

He had no idea he would be asked to get involved in the rescue of Alexandrov and his family.

“On Easter Sunday, I got a call from Brian (Stern, who leads Project Dynamo) from Ukraine. And he said, ‘Can you fly tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘I'd be able to fly on Wednesday.’ He said, ‘No, no, I need you to fly tomorrow, on Monday, because we're doing this rescue on Tuesday. It's a very important one,’” said Goins, a married father of two young daughters, Sofia Valentina, 8, and Isabella Ray, 6.

Goins left Ridgefield the following night.

Despite what Goins was told about the date of the rescue, it did not happen on that Tuesday — nor for the next few weeks.

“The rescue was supposed to happen at any moment but it kept getting pushed back and pushed back,” said Goins, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Due to many complications and failed rescue attempts, it took nearly four weeks for the rescue to happen.

Over the weeks Goins spent with the Project Dynamo team planning Alexandrov’s rescue, he documented about five other rescues.

“There were children rescued, and newborns with surrogate mothers that went to American, Indian and British families,” Goins said. “So I covered these other rescues while we were waiting on the main rescue.”

As the weeks passed, however, Goins became deeply immersed in wanting to make Alexandrov’s rescue happen, he said.

“I became very close friends with Brian because we were joined at the hip for the whole four weeks ... And I have footage of Brian in a darkened room, lamenting about how everybody thinks this rescue is a bust, how people even on his own side are saying, ‘We’ve got to drop this. This is too much. There's something wrong with this rescue. It's not happening’ — and so my emotional arc followed the arc of the story.”

Alexandrov's parents were also growing more anxious by the day. Every day, Stern would give them updates, sometimes two a day, Goins said.

“After weeks and weeks of this, the updates started to sound very familiar and very similar. The parents weren't feeling hopeful,” he said.

In an interview with Today on NBC Universal, Gloria Bernardon, Alexandrov's mother, who had flown to Poland during the rescue effort, said “There were times when the news was not good. And I would be like, ‘Oh, woe is me. This is terrible.’ And my husband would say, ‘No, you stay strong. Keep the faith,’” Bernardon said. “I'm a firm believer in the power of prayer, too. I prayed almost every breathing moment.”

Goins said he became strongly invested in the success of the mission.

“I wanted it to succeed so that the family would be safe,” he said. “And so we'd have a happy ending.”

During the month Goins was away from home, he spoke to his family very often — every day the week he spent in Poland and every other day while in Ukraine.

To prevent his daughters from worrying, he told them he was in Poland the entire trip.

“I didn’t tell them I had been in Ukraine until I got back,” he said, adding he missed them “terribly.”

He said his wife, Maria Goins, knew about 80 percent of what was happening.

Surprise rescue

A lot of detailed planning was involved behind the scenes to make the rescue a success.

“There were people on the Russian side that were supposedly helping to make this happen but Brian felt not everyone that was involved with the effort was operating in good faith. And so, the day before the rescue was scheduled, we went in and got him and his family,” Goins said. “It was a surprise rescue.”

Alexandrov and his family had been told by Stern to be packed and ready. They had been sitting by the door of their home for a couple of days, ready to go, Goins said.

At the time of the surprise rescue, “They got the call (by Stern) to be outside in five minutes. They got into a cleared vehicle and within five seconds, they were gone,” Goins said.

However, he said “Spies were watching and reported to the colonial who was in charge of the town, that they had left.”

The vehicle with Alexandrov and his family had to pass through many Russian checkpoints, which took several hours, Goins said.

Later on, in a “no man’s land” that was identified as a safe place for a handoff, Project Dynamo, along with Goins, met up with the vehicle, Goins said.

“We arrived with security and we were able to get the family into our van and we left that area and went back into Ukrainian occupied territory,” he said.

That’s when their 18-hour “Cannonball Run” drive to the Polish border began, said Goins, referring to the 1981 comedy about the cross-country car race.

Through all the action, Goins was on the scene, capturing it all.

“I was right there, 20 feet from where everything was going on, with my camera. I had cameras set up on the vehicle and I was operating a camera myself,” he said.

On the way to the Polish border, at one point they stopped to stretch their legs first. Alexandrov’s mother-in-law started crying, Goins said.

When he asked her why she was crying, she told him it’s because she knows she will never go back to her home again.

“That was her childhood home with all of her friends,” Goins said.

Alexandrov’s reunion with his parents at the Polish border was very emotional, Goins said.

“When we walked through the border, I went ahead so that I could get the shot of this kid and his mom,” Goins said.

In total, Goins shot over 50 hours of footage that pertained to Alexandrov’s rescue.

Some details of the rescue and Goins said he was unable to share with Hearst Connecticut Media.

Moving forward

Goins said in many ways, he considers Alexandrov’s experience a love story, “until it wasn’t,” he said.

“There's a thing in my business that every story is a love story. And this is no exception. It starts off with a young kid who meets this girl in America and fall(s) in love. She's a Ukrainian girl. He's from Detroit. She takes him back to her country of Ukraine. He falls in love with Ukraine,” Goins said. “They move in together in their family house, in a town called Mylova, which is spelled ‘my love’ and the whole thing is just a love story — until it wasn’t.”

Goins plans to continue working with Project Dynamo.

“I will produce a short film for them which they can use to raise money and awareness,” he said, adding he will also produce a long-form documentary.

When reflecting back, he described his time in Ukraine as “surreal” and one that continues to be so, even now.

“When I first crossed the border into Ukraine, when we got into the war zone, it was very surreal,” he said. “And I lived with that kind of surreal experience for the weeks that I was there.”

The morning after he returned home, he said, “I had to go to soccer practice and swim practice and hang out with my girls and go get ice cream — and that was surreal.”