When a reactor melted down at the Chernobyl power plant on April 26, 1986, it released 400 times more radiation than the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima. The radiation levels at the power plant shot to 300 sieverts, which is deadly after only a minute of exposure. Instead of immediately evacuating the tens of thousands of people being exposed to deadly radiation, authorities in the Soviet Union reportedly tried to cover up the disaster for days. First responders in Chernobyl, including firefighters who rushed into the nuclear blaze to save lives, experienced radiation poisoning that melted their skin.
For the thousands of men, women, and children who lived or worked near the Chernobyl power plant, the disaster destroyed their lives. In the immediate aftermath, men with radiation poisoning vanished while their families wondered where they had gone. Soviet soldiers rounded up dogs to prevent radiation from further spreading. And while more than 100,000 people had to permanently relocate, many snuck back into the deadly exclusion zone, declaring they would rather die than leave their homes.
Sasha Yuvchenko was an engineer-mechanic who worked at Chernobyl. He lived through the explosion on the night of April 26, 1986. "There was a heavy thud," he remembered. "A couple of seconds later, I felt a wave come through the room. The thick concrete walls were bent like rubber. I thought war had broken out."
One of Yuvchenko's co-workers instantly vaporized. "It was dark and there was a horrible hissing noise. There was no ceiling, only sky - a sky full of stars." Radiation poured into the sky, visible to Yuvchenko. "I remember thinking how beautiful it was."
That night, Yuvchenko rushed to the blown reactor. He propped the door open while three men went inside to investigate. All three died in less than two weeks. "You don't feel anything at the time," Yuvchenko explained. "We had no idea there was so much radiation." But his body quickly felt the effects. "After about an hour, I started to vomit uncontrollably. My throat was very sore."
Yuvchenko went to a Moscow hospital, where all of his hair fell out. He had received what should have been a lethal dose of radiation. Thanks to multiple operations, transfusions, and skin grafts - in addition to years in the hospital - Yuvchenko survived the disaster.
The 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl was once home to 116,000 people. All were ordered to permanently relocate after the disaster, but some people - such as a woman named Hanna Zavorotnya - refused to leave their homes behind.
In 1986, just months after the explosion, Zavorotnya snuck into the exclusion zone to return to her village. A group of soldiers caught her and her family members. Zavorotnya told the soldiers, "Shoot us and dig the grave, otherwise we're staying."
Zavorotnya explained, "Radiation doesn't scare me. Starvation does."
When the reactor exploded at Chernobyl, firefighters ran to the site to extinguish a dangerous fire. They were exposed to lethal levels of radiation that could also kill anyone they touched. In one tragic case, a pregnant woman named Lyudmilla Ignatenko rushed to her husband's side as he received treatment for radiation poisoning at a Moscow hospital.
Though the doctors warned Ignatenko not to touch her husband, she couldn't stop herself from giving the dying man a hug. After his death, the firefighter was buried in a zinc coffin to protect others against radiation poisoning.
Just two months later, Ignatenko went into labor. Her baby entered the world suffering the effects of radiation poisoning, with congenital heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver. The baby, named Natashenka, died hours after birth.
Thirty years later, Ignatenko said, "It's impossible to describe. It's impossible to write down. And even to get over."
In 1986, the town of Pripyat was home to 40,000 people and the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Because the Soviets allegedly tried to cover up the disaster at first, the townspeople did not evacuate until 36 hours after the reactor blew.
Alexander Sirota was only 9 years old at the time. As a child, Sirota didn't realize officials would soon declare his entire town uninhabitable. "For us, it was an exciting game," Sirota recalled. "There were soldiers, military helicopters, and firefighters, and plenty of time off school."
Sirota was unaware of the truth for years: "When people I knew started to die around me, a proper understanding of what it was all about came to me."