On April 26, 1986, the Ukraine suffered a tragedy of such a large scale that it would never be the same. The catastrophic nuclear accident occurred when Chernobyl's nuclear reactor exploded after an open-air graphite fire. Chernobyl liquidators, the brave people tasked with cleaning up the radioactive mess, tell a gruesome story that didn't stop when the fire was put out. These brave heroes literally crawled into glowing, radioactive wreckage to prevent the fire from spreading, knowing it would likely prove to be a death sentence.
For first responders at Chernobyl, 1986 was a year of grueling radiation poisoning that forever changed their lives – along with the very fabric of their DNA. With little protection from radiation other than makeshift lead suits, 28 firemen and employees died in the weeks following the event. Radiation was so strong that skin melted off of their bodies, and the Chernobyl firefighters' eyes turned from brown to blue. Many others, who survived acute radiation poisoning (along with some of the now-radioactive animals that survived Chernobyl), returned from the cleanup site with a wealth of on-going health problems. They never got better.
Someone had to clean up the radioactive mess, and the disaster liquidators stepped up to the plate.
Some First Responders Were Exposed To More Radiation Than What Was Emitted At Hiroshima
According to a first-hand account by Anatoli Zakharov, a first-responding firefighter, firefighters determined to squelch the blaze received more radiation than victims of Hiroshima. They had no protective clothing or dosimetric equipment, which measured the levels of gamma-radiation. They even came in direct contact with some of the most radioactive parts of the plant.
In the meltdown, the blazing radioactive debris (a mix of uranium fuel and graphite) fused to the asphalt on the roof of reactor three, and once firefighters put out the small fires, they would kick away the debris or pick it up with their hands and move it aside. When those fires were completely put out, they climbed into the glowing remains of the reactor's core alongside military personnel and put themselves right next to blazingly hot graphite.
During Hiroshima, the bomb emitted gamma rays only at the instant it was detonated 2,500 feet above the ground. Chernobyl was constantly emitting gamma and neutron radiation just a few feet away. For reference, a fatal dose of radiation is about 400REM – the amount a body will absorb in 60 minutes of exposure from a field of 400 roentgen. The uranium fuel and graphite on the roof alone emitted 20,000 roentgen an hour. The area around the core emitted 30,000 roentgen an hour. It took just 48 seconds to absorb a fatal dose, which is why many first responders died a few short weeks later.
First Responding Firefighters Were So Radioactive That Their Eyes Changed Colors, And They Were Buried In Lead Coffins
It took just an hour for the first responders who ran into the reactor's core to become violently ill. The team led by Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik was rushed to the hospital, dizzy and vomiting, but it was too late. Most of the team died just two weeks later in the hospital, and the radiation had allegedly been so intense that it turned Pravik's eyes from brown to blue. Others sustained radiation blisters on their hearts. Many of the bodies of these first responders were so radioactive, they buried them in lead coffins.
Surviving fireman Anatoli Zakharov, who didn't jump into the reactor's core, said everyone there knew the risks.
Of course we knew!... If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze.
Many First Responders Developed Severe Burns – Some Of Which Were Internal – A Week Later
Radiation sickness came on rather slowly, and physical symptoms like burns didn't present themselves immediately. According to fireman Leonid Telyatnikov, he didn't think anything of it when he started vomiting on the scene. He assumed he was just tired from running around. He was ordered to go to the hospital with his crew, where things ended up getting really scary.
“At the hospital we were walking around, talking and smoking, and at first we felt quite well,” he told People. “We didn’t think of death. We thought we were just in for a checkup. But within a week we developed burns on the hands, feet and face from radiation.”
Radiation Sickness Pulled First Responders Away From Their Families While They Recovered
Radiation sickness all but destroyed the immune systems of first responders. They had to be isolated in the sterile unit of a Moscow hospital until they recovered. During this months-long process, they were torn from their families. “In a way I felt like an AIDS patient,” said Telyatnikov. “My immune system had been weakened, so I had to be kept in a sterile unit.”
Telyatnikov was finally able to briefly see his wife on May 11 for their 13th wedding anniversary, two weeks after the events of Chernobyl. He was not allowed to see his two sons until August of 1986.