What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
On my first trip to Chernobyl in 1995, I got to know some physicists who risked their lives studying the radioactive remains of the destroyed nuclear reactor. Back then, conditions were pretty grim in the town of Chernobyl, which had been evacuated after the explosion but later became home to the intrepid band of researchers. One December evening we were sitting around a table as the scientists shared tales about their eeriest experiences inside the radioactive wreckage. Suddenly, the lights went out. "No need to be alarmed," Vladimir Shcherbin, the deputy director, told me. Ukraine was suffering from energy shortages, so at precisely 4 p.m. each day, the electricity to the town was cut. Vladimir got out some candles, and we chatted for another couple hours.
Ten years later, I met my old friend again. This time it was just Vladimir and me in his office. It was just past noon, and he went to his cupboard and got out some cheese, salami, bread, and a bottle of cognac. After a couple jolly toasts, Vladimir said, "You know what today is?" It was April 26. Exactly 19 years earlier, the world's worst nuclear accident had taken place. Tears welled in his eyes. "To the friends we've lost," he said, standing and holding up his glass. He was referring to some of those same scientists who I'd listened to by candlelight ten years earlier and who had since passed away. It was a heart-wrenching moment. But I will always cherish the fact that Vladimir shared it with me.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
My escort into the sarcophagus, the concrete tomb that houses the burned-out remains of Chernobyl's reactor number four, was Yuliya Marusych, a cheerful and smart information officer who works for the nuclear plant. It was easy to imagine nightmare scenarios, such as an earthquake occurring that would fill the air with radioactive dust or bring down the frail walls, trapping us in this unearthly place.
We got out without mishap, and just inside the changing room we stepped onto full-body radiation counters. I put my hands on the pads and waited several seconds before a green light showed I was clean. Yuliya did the same, only the machine flashed red and buzzed. Her mood darkened, and the color drained from her face. She stepped off and back on, and again it buzzed. "Oh no," she said. Yuliya went off to take a decontamination shower, emerging about 20 minutes later. "That's the first time that's happened to me," she said. The shower had apparently worked, but it was a chilling reminder—for her and for me—of the dangers of working at Chernobyl.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
One day I joined a carload of Russian and Ukrainian scientists going to visit a research site across the border from Ukraine in Belarus, several miles from Chernobyl. After clearing Ukrainian customs at the border, we got out of the car for fresh air as the Belarus guards checked our passports. Just then I noticed that the car ahead had Minnesota license plates. They've come a long way, I thought, realizing a split second later how bizarre it was to see U.S. plates here of all places. I took out my camera and snapped a picture. Just then an incensed guard ran over to me, spitting fire. "Give me your camera!" he barked in Russian. "Here it's forbidden to take pictures." I wouldn't relinquish it, offering the camera's memory stick instead. He agreed. I turned toward the car for a moment, took a blank memory stick out of my shirt pocket, turned back to the guard, and made a show of opening the camera port. I handed him the blank disk. We were both satisfied.
In the meantime, the Minnesota car had pulled away. So I never had the chance to ask the driver what he was doing there in the first place.