Chernobyl Disaster's First Responders Share True Stories of Death and Radiation

A cloud of radioactive material settled over Ukraine and Belarus after a critical failure blew apart a Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station reactor in 1986. The resulting death toll is disputed—U.N. agencies counted 4,000 deaths from the resulting radiation exposure, while other investigations have connected thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of additional cancer deaths to the Chernobyl disaster. But while the lingering effects of the reactor meltdown will likely be debated and studied for decades to come, the deaths of first responders on the scene is a well-documented tragedy.

Some of the most heart-wrenching accounts are included in Svetlana Alexievich's 1997 book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award after its 2005 translation into English. But first, it's important to understand exactly what happened on April 26, 1986.

Chernobyl Disaster Timeline

Chernobyl disaster exclusion zone solar panels
A hazard sign indicating radiation in front of the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant April 24, 2012. A solar power project is expected to transform the exclusion zone. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Under construction through the 1970s, with the first reactor completed in 1977, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was named for a medieval town nine miles away. The town of Pripyat was built on the site, not just to house workers and families, but also as a model for the Soviet Union's atomic future. When Reactor No. 4 went critical in April 1986, Pripyat was home to more than 49,000 people.

It began with a systems test in Reactor 4 in the early morning hours of April 26, designed to simulate the transfer of power from steam turbines to backup generators in the event of a power outage. As the steam turbines spun down and the flow of water coolant tapered off, there was an expected rise in the reactor's energy output. Control rods, made of boron carbide (which impedes uranium fission reactions), were lowered into the reactor core to draw down the output. But Chernobyl's control rods included a graphite tip designed to boost reactor efficiency , leading to an unanticipated side effect: when the control rods were lowered back into the reactor, the graphite segment temporarily increased fission reactions during the few seconds before the boron carbide portion of the rod entered the reactor.

This resulted in a power spike that overheated and cracked uranium fuel rods, blocking the control rods from full insertion. Rather than drawing down the reactions inside the core, the graphite portion of the rods already inserted created a feedback loop. The reactor's output spiked to 33,000 megawatts—about equal to the annual energy consumption of New York State (typical shorthand is 1 megawatt per 1,000 homes)—causing a steam explosion that destroyed the reactor casing and blew the upper plating through the plant's ceiling.

While instruments were no longer reading the power output inside the core, the reaction increased rapidly until a second explosion, just a few seconds after the first, blew apart the core, ending the nuclear chain reaction within, but further spreading the contaminated metals and radioactive fallout. This second explosion had a similar blast yield to the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) "Mother of All Bombs" built by the U.S. military. Radiation levels in some areas in and around the reactor building spiked to 5.6 roentgens per second—enough to impart a lethal dose in less than a minute.

By 1:30 a.m., local firefighters were already at work putting out fires around the reactor building and on the roofs of surrounding buildings, though Reactor No. 4 itself would continue burning for over a month.

Two full days after the meltdown radioactivity alarms sounded at a nuclear power station in Sweden, bringing the disaster to the attention of the world, even as Soviet officials acknowledged nothing worse than an unspecified "accident." This has made piecing together the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster tricky, with historians reconstructing what happened from declassified archives and eyewitnesses with fading recollections. Much of this history has been relayed by the more than half a million "Chernobyl liquidators," as the Chernobyl employees, firefighters, Soviet Armed Forces soldiers, civilian scientists and journalists who helped mitigate the damage from the Chernobyl disaster have come to be called. In the decades since, they've fought for recognition, medical care and just compensation for the immense damage wrought on their bodies and families by the radioactivity unleashed.

True Stories from Chernobyl Disaster First Responders

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Belarus' opposition supporters at a rally in Minsk to commemorate the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on the 32nd anniversary of the tragedy, April 26, 2018. SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty Images

Vasily Ignatenko was one of the first Pripyat firefighters on the scene after the explosion. He climbed to the reactor roof in an attempt to extinguish the fires, where he received a fatal dose of radiation. Within a few hours of the explosion, firefighters managed to put out all of the on-site fires, except for the graphite fire inside the reactor itself, which burnt out two weeks later.

It took Ignatenko two weeks to die, during which time he excreted blood and mucus stool more than 25 times a day and coughed up pieces of his own internal organs. Ignatenko was one of 27 firefighters who died of acute radiation sickness in the weeks after the disaster.

His wife Lyudmila watched her husband die of radiation poisoning—her close contact with him permanently impairing her own health. " They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn't get it on him, there wasn't a whole body to put it on," she recounts in Voices of Chernobyl, describing seeing her dead husband in the morgue. "My love. They couldn't get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot." His body still radioactive, Ignatenko was buried in Moscow beneath zinc and concrete shielding.

Vasily was just one of 28 firefighters and Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station who died in the weeks immediately after the explosion. More than 200 others suffered acute radiation sickness, leading to high rates of cancer, especially of the thyroid gland.

Chernobyl Radioactivity Spreads

how long Chernobyl completley safe
A monument in "memory of the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster" in front of Chernobyl's New Safe Confinement. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

The Chernobyl disaster was especially bad for the nation of Belarus. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was located in Ukraine, just a few miles from the Belarusian border. Because of radioactive contamination 485 villages were abandoned. Even into the 2000s, nearly one-fifth of Belarusians lived on land contaminated by the disaster, resulting in soaring mortality rates and depopulation.

"We didn't just lose a town, we lost our whole lives," Nikolai Kalugin told Alexievich, who describes fleeing his home on the third day after the explosion.

His wife and daughter broke out in black spots—the radiation poisoning proved fatal for one of them. "They brought a little coffin," Kalugin recounts. "It was small, like the box for a large doll. I want bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it."

"I'm not afraid of death anymore," a soldier who became a Chernobyl liquidator says in Voices from Chernobyl. "My friend died. He got huge, fat, like a barrel. And my neighbor—he was also there, he worked a crane. He got black, like coal, and shrunk, so that he was wearing kids' clothes. I don't know how I'm going to die. I do know this: you don't last long with my diagnosis. But I'd like to feel it when it happens. Like if I got a bullet in the head. I was in Afghanistan, too. It was easier there. They just shot you."

Dalkey Archive Press

Voices from Chernobyl captures the disaster from all angles, speaking to soldiers, doctors, cameraman, writers, families and hundreds of other witnesses. It is an incomparable document of what Alexievich describes as "the largest technological disaster of the 20th century." Here we are only scratching the surface of a long legacy of suffering.

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