For Borik Rubaiv and hundreds of other pupils at Beslan's Middle School Number One, it was to have been a celebration of the first day of the new school term. Parents carried flowers and teachers wore their best clothes. A Tannoy played music while the children formed lines alphabetically around the swing bars on the playground lawn.
It was some of the older children who noticed them first - a masked group quickly crossing the railway tracks that run behind the school. Some, giggling, thought it was a joke at first, until they picked up the anxiety of the adults waving at them to run.
'The kids first ran towards them and then they ran back towards us in the school. Within moments, we were surrounded,' said Borik's aunt, Vala Hosanova
Some of the children further back were luckier. Diana Kubalova, 14, ran with some of her classmates, a parent and a teacher back into the boiler room, in the bowels of the school. There they hid as Russia's worst-ever hostage crisis unfolded. Back in the playground, the militants quickly got their bearings. 'They asked us where the sports hall was,' said Hosanova. 'They then said that, if we did not go in there immediately, we would all be shot.'
According to witnesses, this was not the only group of terrorists. Another band had infiltrated the school in a van.
While his friends were lining up, Soslan Bigayev, 13, had been wandering around the school looking at the renovation work that had been done. Thirsty, he headed for a water fountain.
'I thank God that I became thirsty. It saved my life.' While he was drinking, the second group drove into the school. 'Men jumped out of the van,' Bigayev said. 'One of them had a long ginger beard, thick bushy eyebrows and a red-and-green skull-cap. He fired an automatic rifle into the air. I knew immediately that they were terrorists because of all the other attacks that I've seen on TV over the past few days.'
Bigayev fled. His friends fared worse. Caught between gunmen coming from two sides, an estimated 1,000 children, teachers and parents were herded at gunpoint into the gym, a new building about 10 metres wide and 25 metres long.
The first act of their captors was to order adults to hand over their mobile phones and cameras. It was the first sign that the militants had prepared well for their siege. Two years ago, when Chechen terrorists seized 800 theatre-goers in the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, mobile phone calls had played a seminal role in helping the authorities to map out the layout of the crisis. Here, there would be no such errors and they would not be identified if they escaped.
And now it appears the planning had gone far further than learning from past mistakes. According to Russian state security officials, the gunmen and women had pre-planted extra weapons and explosives, smuggled into the school during rebuilding work over the summer holidays, and hidden them beneath floorboards.
As the militants filed through the school's corridors, one of Kubalova's friends peered through a crack in the door to see men with impressive beards - and two women wearing face masks and suicide bomber belts - march around the school, talking in Russian to each other, with what sounded like strong Chechen accents.
At that moment, Kubalova came across an Ossetian man, to whom she whispered for help. The militants heard, and ran towards the group, grabbing some, but allowing 14 to escape. The news of the seige of School Number One was out.
As local police rushed towards the red brick building, grabbing whatever escapees they could, the first exchanges of gunfire began and the first casualties fell dead.
Anatoli Sikoyev, a parent in his fifties who was recovering from a stroke, made a desperate dash to save his child that nearly cost him his life.
'When I heard the news, I rushed to school to save my family' he said from hospital that evening. 'I approached the schoolyard and came across a man with a huge beard.
'He shouted at me: "Lie down and crawl backwards". I could not lie down, so I bent over and began to move back. Then another man shot at me from a window, hitting my hand and skimming my head. Now I am helpless and here.'
As the gunmen fired out of the windows at fleeing parents and children, inside the school the terrorists were also separating men from women, according to witnesses shooting several male teachers in the process.
Inside the gym, the terrorists were also busy rigging up a series of bombs. Two wires were run from the basketball hoops at either side of the hall. On these wires, and on the hoops, mines, each the size of a Mars bar, were intermittently strewn. The walls and entrances were also booby-trapped, and two large plastic containers were put in the middle of the floor.
The militants had also set the men to work dragging a cupboard across the gym's main entrance, blocking it off, before they were marched to another room.
And as the fighters' leaders introduced themselves to their captives by their noms de guerre, any doubts that they had about the identity of their kidnappers and the peril they were in were quickly dispelled.
According to the Kommer sant newspaper, they called themselves Magas, Fantomas and Abdullah, the first two of whom were associates of the notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.
The newspaper identified Magas as Magomed Yevloyev, an Ingush who organised the bloody raid on Ingushetia on 22 June, in which more than 90 people died. Fantomas is a former bodyguard of Basayev, who is alleged to be an ethnic Russian.
Other Russian media identified the leader as Doka Umarov, a Chechen separatist leader.
Terrified, the thousand hostages inside the gym tried to adjust to the stifling cattle-truck conditions, leading many to strip off their clothes and others to have panic attacks and breathing difficulties.
Children and women had to sit shoulder to shoulder. 'There was not enough room to stretch out your legs,' said Hosanova. 'Sweat was trickling down us. We could not breathe.
'They had opened a tiny gap in the windows at the top, but that was having no effect. It was like a sauna in there, but they refused to make it any cooler.'
The terrorists moved quickly to establish their control over the captives. 'Three women in suicide bomber belts and masks said that, if we cried or shouted, they would take action', said Hosanova. To ensure the hostages that their rules were not for breaking, they killed a man whom they had caught using his phone. 'We will kill 20 to 40 of you if you use these again', they warned.
Outside the school, the chaotic scenes that had greeted the first attempt by local police and militia to rush the building was rapidly settling into an armed stand-off.
As the gunmen and bombers inside secured the school's buildings, Russian security forces - including officers from the Ministry of the Interior and OMON - had set up their own perimeters, bringing forward armoured cars and snipers.
The residents of Beslan, a town of 35,000, also appeared, some armed with weapons and sporting white armbands to distinguish them from the gunmen. There were perhaps as many as 5,000 of them.
Specialist rescue teams had been brought in too from Russia's Ministry of Emergencies, to deal with the crisis. But, for all the preparations, one error would be made that would later contribute to the huge death toll - too few ambulances would be brought up outside the school.
And it was not only on the ground, outside Beslan's School Number One, that the security authorities had gone quickly into emergency mode. In the Kremlin, too, the phone lines were buzzing as President Vladimir Putin's officials demanded to know what was going on - and precisely what the kidnappers were demanding.
For despite the obvious - that the latest terrorist atrocity was somehow linked to Russia's brutal war in Chechnya - how and why was still not clear.
The demands were not to become any little clearer until just a few hours before the siege reached its awful and bloody denouement.
North Ossetia's leader, Alexander Dzasokhov, briefed journalists on his knowledge of the negotiations that were already in train.
'They said Chechnya should be separate from Russia, be an independent state. But they didn't go beyond this assertion. They didn't say who they would like to talk to, or anything. My impression is that they are cut off from the outside world,' he said.
The Russian authorities had already made a decision totally out of keeping with their customary violent approach to Chechen hostage-takers. Faced with the risk of another disaster such as the Moscow theatre siege, which ended in scores being asphyxiated when Russian special forces used gas to subdue all within the auditorium, the Russians would talk. More extraordinarily, the Kremlin would ask for help from Chechen separatist leaders whom it had long regarded as beyond the pale.
Unusually, Putin himself, who ordinarily wastes no opportunity to expound his beliefs on Russia's fight against terror and who rose to power on the back of the Chechen threat, at first remained silent.
When he finally broke his silence, it was only on Thursday, a day into the siege. And then it was to reinforce the growing belief that Russian forces would negotiate, not storm the building.
'Our main task is, of course, to save the life and health of those who became hostages. We understand these acts are not only against private citizens of Russia, but against Russia as a whole. What is happening in North Ossetia is horrible,' he said in remarks shown on Russian television.
Inside the school, the terrorists were formulating their demands, which were passed in two notes to police outside. They sought the release of 24 militants arrested after a June raid by suspected Chechen separatists on neighbouring Ingushetia, in which Fantomas and Magas were implicated. They wanted to meet the presidents of Ingushetia and of North Ossetia, and other senior officials. And of course, they made the key and unfulfillable demand - the same that the Dubrovka hostage-takers had - of a complete Russian military withdrawal from Chechnya. At 15:38, they said, they would kill 50 hostages for each one of them who died and kill 20 if they were injured.
Inside they made a show of the lethal force they were prepared to use on themselves as well as their thousand hostages. About 20 of the men were gathered up and taken to the second floor of the main school building, to the right of the gym.
There, they were shot dead. One survivor said that she thought a female suicide bomber may also have been involved in their murder. Their bodies were thrown out of the windows and left to rot in the afternoon sun.
After that, the first night of the siege in the school passed quietly.
A few hostages had been allowed to drink water from the taps and showers in the changing rooms next to the gym. Only a few exchanges of gunfire and grenade blasts breached the calm of the siege.
But by the following morning, the mood worsened. The militants began the day by upping the stakes.
'They smashed the handles off the taps in the changing room so we could not use them', said Hosanova. 'Water became a big problem. We had to wring out our clothes to drink our sweat from them. We even drank our own urine, the children were so thirsty.'
Sitting in her flat yesterday, wretchedly awaiting news of her missing sister and niece, she shows with her dress how they demanded the children make a filter of four layers of clothes through which they could drink their own urine.
'The smell had become unbelievably bad by then', she said.
Inside the school, the tension was rising as conditions worsened. Random grenade blasts and gunfire sent ripples of tension through the crowds, tearful women ducking as explosions rocked the courtyard.
Tamara Peroyeva, 63, knew that something would have to give soon. She was sandwiched between two complete strangers, all of them in relative states of undress, writhing around in the grime of the gym floor and their own waste. Her grandson and other kids had used her belly as a pillow and for while they had laid on top of each other to try to keep up their strength.
Then the children had decided that chanting might change the militants' minds. 'Water, water, water', went the chant, as if they had forgotten this was not a normal gym class. 'We still had not seen any water, and the kids were crying', she said. 'The terrorists tried shooting in the air to silence them - there was nothing else that appeared to work.'
But as night drew in, and the authorities promised again there would be no siege, the chaos grew worse. 'The shooting stopped them crying for five minutes, but then they started up again.'
As dawn broke on Friday, Hosanova felt that events were about to take a turn for the worse.
The militants told them that, 'If they come at us with tanks, we will fight back until we run out of ammunition. But then we will take your lives as well as our own.' She noticed also that the male militants had begun whispering to each other for the first time, clearly not wanting to be overheard by the hostages. 'If they start a storm then only you will be to blame,' one said.
It was at 13:05, just a few moments after traditional Muslim prayers, that the day broke apart.
The men from the Russian MInistry of Emergencies had been nervous about their mission, but were keen to do it. After negotiations with the gunmen inside the school, they had been told that they could collect some of the bodies lying both inside and outside the buildings, because dogs had begun to worry some of the corpses.
Entering the school in two ambulances, they carefully left their vehicles and crossed to where they could see the first of the bodies, one of them propped up against a car. As the paramedics picked up the first two corpses, the air was rent by two powerful blasts, followed by the sound of small arms fire.
As the emergency workers took cover, they saw a middle-aged man emerge from the smoke, wearing only a pair of trousers, covered in dirt.
Startled into action by the two explosions, Russian troops staggered forward and began firing at the windows of the school, in an attempt to cover the escape of the bloodied survivors who were beginning to emerge from the building. At the same time, two Russian tanks moved in.
Inside the school, Hosanova recalls that she was sitting calmly when the first explosion sounded. She believes that one of the mines strung up between the basketball hoops in the gym had gone off.
'We all fell down and held our heads in our hands. We tried to cover the children with our bodies. What else could we do? I was totally disorientated. Those closer to the wall were luckier and did not get injured. Bits of roof and glass were falling everywhere. I looked up and saw that the woman next to me was dead. Children were running everywhere, panicking. A masked militant came near me and took some hostages away with him.' Soon she saw soldier with Spetznaz - Russian special forces - insignia, and was led to safety.
Ilfa Gagiyeva ran instinctively for the window when she heard the first blast. Yet before she jumped, she turned back, shocked that she had forgotten her daughter, Diana, seven. She said a second, 'strange-sounding' blast rang out.
'I grabbed her and then moved to the changing room. Hassan, one of the militants, was in the toilet during the first explosion and, when he came out, he tried to help people to the window to get fresh air. We stayed in the small hall near the gym for 20 minutes until the Spetznaz reached us.'
Outside the school, a scene of utter carnage was unfolding.
At the local administration, the doors of the nearby cafe burst open and dozens of children, grimy, bloodied and some limp, were hurriedly carried out into the street by police and bystanders. Helicopters swarmed overhead and automatic gunfire and explosions answered each other.
A group of militants appeared to head back over the railway, towards the direction from which they had come. A group of helicopters buzzed after them. Panicked, Spetznaz tried to block the railway, their efforts part-hampered, part-helped by groups of sweaty local men in tracksuits, bearing hunting rifles and eager to get involved in the fight.
Nearer the local Palace of Culture, the dead were beginning to be brought out. A seemingly endless stream of stretchers was half-dragged, half-carried toward the school, returning laden with another limp form. A young girl, her sooty form covered in bits of roof insulation. A woman, nearly naked.
The closer to the school, the thicker the blood - the Spetznaz troops had been exchanging fire with the gunmen from nearby apartment blocks. The terrorists' grenades had blown them out of the windows.
Below, local men were determined to reach their children and wives in the school. They broke through a garage wall that connected with the school's playground.
And then came the bodies. Children, alive, blackened, blinking with shock. Dazed mothers.
On the other side of the school, events had taken on an Inferno-esque turn.
On one side, local men and police gathered, eager to bear stretchers, to end their helpless, hopeless inertia, yet not involved in the military operation. One Alfa special forces soldier involved in the siege angrily told the Gazeta newspaper: 'There would have been a lot fewer victims if the local civilians had not got involved.'
An armoured personnel carrier was rammed against the school wall, and a fire truck sat in the centre of the playground where a single red rose lay, its petals mangled, mottled by soot.
But the worst was to come - what lay inside the still burning gym. It was revealed as the Russian troops continued to fight the last of the gunmen who had taken the school. At one stage, a tank was called up to clear a basement room.
They are scenes that will never be forgotten by those who fought there that day, some of whom are still struggling to understand what happened and whether they contributed to the high death toll.
Among them is a Spetznaz soldier called Vitali, who told the Kommersant newspaper: 'There was no command to storm and we did not return fire until we knew it was the end. The Vitez Spetznaz unit went in first. We saw a terrible fire in the gym.' Another Spetznaz trooper said: 'There were a lot of children on the floor; it was full of them'.
Even the most battle-hardened struggled to cope with what greeted their eyes. Lt Col Andrei Galageyev told Gazeta : 'When we entered the gym, I saw a 2 litre plastic bottle filled with plastic explosive and metals balls. I have been at war since 1994, but I have never seen anything like that. There were dozens of mangled bodies, some of them still burning.'
Hosanova, whose sister and niece have yet to come home, put it differently: 'We cannot say what it is. There are no words for this.'
Timeline of conflict
Russian forces move into Chechnya to secure borders with Ottoman Turkey, sparking Chechen resistance.
Chechnya fully incorporated into Russian Empire.
Revolution and civil war lead to an attempt at creating an autonomous theocratic state. Socialist pressure prevails and Chechnya opts for Soviet government.
Revolt against the Stalin regime leads to mass deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan.
Khruschev condemns deportations and restores Chechnya as an 'autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic'. However, Chechen social identity continues to be a neglected issue.
The Soviet Union collapses. Chechnya declares unilateral independence.
Boris Yeltsin orders 40,000 troops to invade Chechnya to prevent the separation from Russia.
Yeltsin formally signs peace treaty with Chechnya.
Chechnya invades neighbouring Dagestan, rendering peace treaty obsolete. Vladimir Putin sends troops to Chechnya in reponse.
Rebels shoot down transport helicopter in Chechnya, killing 118 Russian soldiers.
Two suicide bombers drive truck bomb into government offices in Znamenskoye - 59 people killed.
Truck bomb blows up military hospital at Mozdok in North Ossetia, killing 50 people.
129 hostages and 41 Chechen guerrillas killed when Russian troops storm Moscow theatre.
Explosion on Moscow metro during rush hour kills at least 30 people.
Two Russian passenger planes are blown up almost simultaneously, killing 89 people.