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Olesya's mother, a technician at the plant, reported to work as usual that morning, several hours after the accident. Olesya went off to school. "It was hot that day, real summer," she recalls. At school, "people were gossiping. We were shut indoors. I couldn't understand why." After their lessons the children were told to go straight home and not to linger outside playing.

Olesya's mother returned in the afternoon and closed the windows. A city worker came by with iodine tablets, a prophylactic against radioactive iodine 131. Mom also gave Olesya a shot of vodka, widely believed in Soviet lands to protect against radiation. Her father, an engineer, returned that day from Moscow, where he had passed a doctoral exam. His thesis, ironically, was on the odds of a catastrophe at a nuclear power station. On his way home, he told Olesya later, he saw children splashing in puddles where the road had been hosed down. He pleaded with them to get indoors. They were drenching themselves with radiation.

In a radio broadcast the next morning, officials announced that there had been an accident and the town would be evacuated. That day 1,100 buses from across Ukraine lined up in Pripyat. By 5 p.m. the city was empty.

Nineteen years later, in 2005, a shivering crowd attends a midnight vigil in Slavutych, a city built in the late 1980s as a replacement for Pripyat. Thirty miles away, it housed workers who tended the remaining three Chernobyl reactors until they were shut down, the last of them in 2000. Etched in black marble in the central square are the names and faces of the disaster's first victims. Two plant workers, Valery Khodemchuk and Vladimir Shishenok, died from the blast and fire. The others, 22 plant workers and six firefighters, were exposed to colossal radiation doses and succumbed within months. As an Orthodox priest chants and a choirhymns Gospodi, Gospodi, Gospodi—my God, my God, my God—family members solemnly set wreathes and candles under the engravings of their loved ones.

During the days after the explosion thousands of other workers, called liquidators, were rushed to Chernobyl to tame the radioactive inferno. Coal miners dug underneath the seething core to allow liquid nitrogen to be pumped in and cool the nuclear fuel. Helicopter pilots dumped 5,000 tons of lead, sand, clay, and other material in an effort to douse the flames. Soldiers made timed dashes onto the roof to shovel smoking graphite blocks blown out of the reactor back into the core. Referred to, sardonically, as "bio-robots," many of the 3,400 surreally brave men who took part in this operation absorbed a lifetime radiation dose in seconds.

On May 6 the fires in the mangled reactor were finally extinguished, and an army of liquidators went to work building the sarcophagus and consolidating radioactive waste at several hundred dumps near Chernobyl. In those early days doctors monitoring the liquidators watched white blood cell counts drop and feared for their health. Most recovered.

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