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.
Radiation from the Chernobyl disaster was, without a doubt, wildly harmful to humans. For this reason, radio-controlled vehicles were initially used to clear the most hazardous debris: highly radioactive fuel from the reactor's core that was thrown onto the roof of reactor three.
Unfortunately, the radiation was so strong that it destroyed the electronics inside of the vehicles, and the only remedy was to remove the radioactive materials by hand. The government sent in first responders, referred to as liquidators or bio robots. Where technology failed, humans stepped in, but it wasn't without consequence.
It's estimated that up to 800,000 people helped clean up the mess surrounding Chernobyl in the years following the plant's meltdown. The largest amount of these liquidators – nearly 200,000 – were first responders in 1986. Liquidators came in three phases. There was the "initial phase," which included firefighters who showed up as early as 24 hours before the evacuation of Pripyat, the nuclear city in which Chernobyl was located. The second phase, considered the "early phase," consisted of firefighters and military reserves who helped clean up the area and built a sarcophagus around the reactor in 1986. About 7% of all liquidators received high doses of radiation. Those in the late phase were the least likely to have problems, as they entered the workforce during the end of the sarcophagus construction and the dissolution of the USSR. The cleanup was then split between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
While many of the responders who arrived during the actual meltdown died, the Chernobyl Union estimates that between 90,000 and 200,000 of the disaster liquidators that survived have major long-term health problems.
While some first responders managed to create makeshift steel protection, the very first firefighters who rushed to the scene were completely unprotected. When they arrived at the plant, the radiation meters had frozen on the highest level – but they charged through anyway, trying to fight the blaze before it spread to the surrounding area.
According to fire fighter and first-responder Lieut. Col. Leonid Telyatnikov, firefighters were armed with nothing more than normal fire-fighting uniforms, gas masks, and hoses. Though the idea of radiation poisoning crossed through their minds (it was inevitable should they choose to do their jobs), they were determined to contain the fire. No one spoke about the radiation risk – or their terrifying, looming fate – and many contracted radiation poisoning as they worked, but still didn't stop. “Thoughts of my family would flash through my mind and be gone,” he told People magazine.
The most frightening thought we all had was that we wouldn’t have enough strength to hold out until reserves came and prevent the fire from getting out of control. About an hour after the fire began, a group of fire fighters with symptoms of radiation exposure were taken down from a rooftop close to the damaged reactor. When I approached five men to take up the position, they rushed to the rooftop almost before I could get the words out of my mouth.
It was clear that the Soviet government was not equipped to handle such a catastrophe, and they lacked the necessary equipment to protect first responders, who largely consisted of 30- to 40-year-old men from the military's reserves. According to Igor Kostin, a reporter on the scene who wrote the book Chernobyl: Confessions of a Reporter, first responders were instructed to create makeshift radiation armor from lead sheets that covered the walls of various government buildings. Kostin remembered:
Everyone is instructed to throw a shovelful of radioactive dust and then run. Almost all the liquidators who worked on the roof of the third block were thirty-five to forty year old reservists recalled to serve in the armed forces for 'maneuvers.' General Tarakanov ordered them to remove the lead sheets covering the walls of the government subcommittee bureaus in order to make them rudimentary protective clothing. These suits were not wearable more than once: they absorbed too much radioactivity.
The smart ones made themselves a lead “fig leaf” that they inserted between two layers of underwear. But they forgot neither the lead cap that they wore as headgear nor the lead padded sole that they slipped in to their boots.