For many years, the details of the Chernobyl disaster were shrouded in mystery. The Soviets vehemently denied and purposefully obfuscated exactly what happened at Chernobyl, and westerners were allowed to see little of what transpired behind the Iron Curtain. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, more and more documents have been released, and we now have a clearer picture of the 1986 disaster and its aftermath.
While the events of Chernobyl were tragic, they could have been so much worse if not for the efforts of the brave first responders who contained the disaster. In covering up the disaster's true scope, the USSR also buried some of these heroic stories, including the stories of the Chernobyl suicide squad, three workers who risked their own lives to prevent an apocalyptic event.
Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and Boris Baranov (posthumously) were awarded the Ukrainian Order For Courage in 2018, but for many years their story was left untold. Modern reporting and dramatizations like HBO's series Chernobyl have shone a light on their sacrifices.
Beneath Chernobyl was a corridor that housed a dizzying array of valves and pipes, including the pressure release valve for the coolant system, but the valves were not well differentiated. In his book Chernobyl 01:23:40, Andrew Leatherbarrow writes: "The men entered the basement in wetsuits, radioactive water up to their knees, in a corridor stuffed with myriad pipes and valves... it was like finding a needle in a haystack."
And yet, find it they did, by locating a pipe and following that to the correct valve.
As the bubbler pools drained, the Chernobyl workers celebrated. They had avoided a truly catastrophic disaster. However, while the danger was minimized, it wasn't truly over. The reactor core was still burning and while it was less likely, there was still a possibility that it would burn straight through the concrete building and make contact with the groundwater below.
In order to prevent this, the Soviets gathered up all the liquid nitrogen in the Soviet Union and started to pump it into the ground underneath Chernobyl. The idea was to freeze the ground using a heat exchanger and to prevent the core from reaching the water. Unable to use drills for fear of disturbing the plants foundations, miners were sent in with hand tools. These miners were given no protective gear, and some perished in the extreme radioactivity.
In the end, the core cooled to an acceptable temperature before the Soviets even had an opportunity to turn the heat exchanger on.
For the workers on the ground, there was no certainty they would evade complete devastation. Many of them knew what would happen if the molten core met the water supply, but they didn't know whether the team would be able to reach the valves in time.
Ananenko recalled the moments after the team successfully reached the valve and dumped the water supply: "Everyone at the Chernobyl NPS was watching this operation. When the searchlight beam fell on a pipe, we were joyous: The pipe led to the valves. We heard the rush of water out of the tank. And in a few more minutes we were being embraced by the guys."
One thing that HBO's Chernobyl got right was the horrific effects of radiation exposure. The Chernobyl disaster unleashed more radioactive energy than the atomic device at Hiroshima, and the workers who survived often did so at tremendous cost. Many of them perished in improvised hospital beds, suffering burns and the other effects of radiation exposure (something HBO took great pains to depict accurately).
Even the people who were vaporized on the spot during the explosion may have been the lucky ones. The lingering illnesses were the worst, as heartbreaking accounts from those affected attest. A former serviceman who was sent to work on the site reported:
I'm not afraid of [perishing] anymore... My friend [passed]. 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 [pass]. 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 [struck] in the head. I was in Afghanistan, too. It was easier there. They just [fired at] you.
If the story of the three Chernobyl divers is a story of heroic bravery and success, the story of Alexander Akimov and Leonid Toptunov is a story of tragic and pointless passing. Shortly after the initial explosion that rocked the plant, Akimov and Toptunov were convinced that a closed valve was preventing coolant flow to the reactor.
No less brave than their colleagues, they struggled to reach the valve and spent hours waist-deep in water far more radioactive than it would be just a couple days later. They were attempting to pump water into the reactor, but their efforts were in vain. They both perished from the effects of radiation days after.