Yury flopped open a mini date log, pointing to the black marks he scrawled to count his helicopter trips over the still-smoldering Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Early morning April 26, 1986, the facility’s reactor number 4 exploded, heaving tons of uranium, cesium, plutonium and other radioactive poisons three miles into the atmosphere.
In the weeks following the disaster, the Soviet powers ordered Yury, a Russian video journalist, to film aerial scenes of the crippled Ukrainian facility. Yury and his copter pilots hovered eerily over the molten mess again and again. Odin, dva, tri, chetire, pyat’ . . . the numbers in Yury’s flight manifesto seemed inconceivable.
“After those flights, my hair started to fall out,” Yury explained in solid English. “At first I thought it was from a lack of eating vegetables.” As the driver of my U.S. humanitarian team to Chernobyl’s 18-mile radius Exclusion Zone, Yury seemed anxious to dialogue on that brisk day in January 1991. Our Jeep lurched and pounded on the outlying ruts, kicking up choking dust billows. Compared to the sickening cloud of radionuclides from the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe, the grimy travel debris seemed trivial.
A quarter-century after I became one of the first Western journalists into the Zone, it is time that I disclose the truth. Not about humongous-eyed aliens, but the truth behind a hush-hush secret that grieves me to think that I schlepped along in silence myself for decades. People tend to confess things to me. Addictions. Affairs. Crimes. Like them, Yury’s private mystery long wadded into the core of his nightmares needed space to thud to the surface. After showing us his Chernobyl flight record, Yury stared at the Jeep’s steering wheel before continuing his memories.
That April Saturday in 1986, Yury captured video of his family throwing an outdoor party not far from the doomed power plant. The media cameraman filmed the springtime flowers and squealing laughter of the kids. He recorded the fresh gaiety of the afternoon, oblivious that all around invisible chemicals wafted in the breeze and swirled into streams. Deadly atoms gripped trees, grass and shoes. Ionizing particles floated inside nostrils and lungs.
While Yury kept the camera rolling on fun, firefighters and first responders at the Chernobyl facility raced to dampen the roaring reactor. No one could stop the radioactive fury. And no one told the public of the out-of-control monster fanning a lethal plume northward across Belarus and countries beyond.
Soviet Union leader Gorbachev and other members of the Politburo learned of the tragedy around 3 a.m. Saturday—about 1 ½ hours after the steam blast rocked a 1,000-ton lid from above the reactor’s fuel elements. Seeds of a global cover-up rooted overnight. What Soviet commanders knew and when is still debated. Some 36 hours after the explosion, residents of Pripyat, the power plant’s surrounding “atom town” received first official details of the meltdown: “Attention comrades, an unsatisfactory radioactive situation has occurred at the Chernobyl power station. As a temporary precaution, it has been decided to evacuate citizens of Pripyat.” Three hours later, with the aid of 1,200 buses from Kiev, the community of roughly 45,000 turned eerily empty.
Somewhere in the panic and precaution, Soviet authorities learned of Yury’s idyllic spring day video. Moscow aired clips of his film on state television. The communist powers distorted Yury’s truth of the clear landscape and jovial people into a half-truth for the world to see. Da, April 26 was a bright, sunny day. See the local children giggling and romping, the adults toasting and feasting. Yury’s video footage proved all was well for USSR citizens. Or, was it?
In control of our Jeep ride to the Zone almost five years later, this seen-too-much news professional could no longer control his dam of secrecy. Yury stammered with the sobering reality. “The government used my video to say that “Nyet, nyet, nyet, the Chernobyl plant is fine. Everything is fine. That video, it . . . it. . . how you say? It is a black spot on my heart. A black spot on my whole life.”
The civil authorities turned an innocent party into international propaganda. If Sweden hadn’t sounded the alarm, three days after the initial devastation, how long would have the Soviets remained tight-lipped? Authorities held back on the full effects of the radiation contamination for years. Children splashed in streams. Women gathered mushrooms in the forests. Men tilled their farmland.
The Republic’s calculated downplay of the Chernobyl melee cracked open in October 1990 when Byelorussia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Pyotr Kravchanka addressed the United Nations General Assembly. “I want to be completely frank with the Assembly,” Mr. Kravchanka said in issuing an appeal for international aid. “The bitter truth is that it is only now, four and a half years later, that we are finally and with tremendous difficulty making a breach in the wall of indifference, silence and lack of sympathy, and for this we ourselves are largely to blame.”
A few weeks later I was invited as a reporter to join a New York-based group delivering three ton of medicine and relief supplies to Belarus hospitals and orphanages. Our host, the Byelorussian Children’s Fund, escorted us throughout this troubled country where more than half of the unseen Chernobyl toxins showered unsuspecting citizens with a blanket of potential disease and death. I grasped the hand of a dying teen and cradled babies no body wanted. Seeing dozens of bald, chemo-sick boys and girls is still tough to form into words.
I sensed the country’s suffocating uneasiness as Yury drove us to the Zone’s checkpoint and armed communist guards herded us into an outdated bus to tour a number of desolate evacuated villages. At one point we ventured within four miles of the mangled energy plant and our cell phone-sized dosimeter soared to indicate dangerous radiation levels—10 times higher than what is considered safe.
I can still hear the haunting creak of dilapidated playground swings. Picture dirt-swept toys and dolls long abandoned in schoolrooms. Drawing close to Chernobyl’s Ground Zero, we met an elderly couple outside their farmhouse. “Why are you still here in this contamination?” I posed. The wife pointed to the sky and scolded me through our interpreter, “Neyt! Neyt! Neyt! We see nothing in the air!”
Denial can work for any of us, until reality snags our heels and hauls us down. An accurate tally of the ill and dead from Chernobyl may never be known—estimates still range from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. As celebrated author Mitch Albom notes, “One day can bend your life.” April 26, 1986, was that day for Yury and countless innocents like him.
Today the United Nations reports, “No established legitimate authority was able to immediately address the situation and provide answers for questions such as: Is it safe to leave the house? Is it safe to drink water? Is it safe to eat local produce?”
Thirty years ago in a Cold War culture, Yury did not know Moscow would manipulate his family-time video. Today we live in a world where employees (politicians, NFL players and more) refuse to submit evidence—delete the files, shred evidence or wipe the data—or become infamous whistle blowers. Was Yury an unknowing pawn on a convoluted global chessboard or merely a dedicated family man just doing his job? Yes. Both.
I imagine feeling radiation betray his own body and watching the same in others only added to Yury’s internal agony. Perhaps he wondered, Am I partially to blame for these hurting kids? Could I have spoken out against the mishandling of my video or alerted the outside world to the truth?
I cringe as I type. Sitting in that chilly Jeep in early 1991, was Yury attempting to alert the outside world through me?
In his UN plea, representative Kravchanka added this perspective. “The verdict of history has yet to be passed on those in our Republic who . . . hid the truth about the effects of the accident from our people,” the foreign affairs leaders said. “It is difficult to say why they did this, and to disentangle cause from effect: was the deception caused by secrecy, or was the secrecy the result of the deception? Either way, it was inhuman.”
Deception always hurts someone. In the case of the Chernobyl disaster, someone swelled to hundreds of thousands. Countless men, women and children lost homes. Lost hair. Lost lives.
I respect national security issues, but is there ever an appropriate time for governments to sequester the reality of a mistake, a manmade disaster, a tragic oops that injures and kills? Its no wonder distrust festers in the psyche of citizens on every continent.
I have no time for regrets. Neither does Yury, if he is still alive. I’m unclear how anyone can fly numerous times over a fuming nuclear reactor and live years later to tell about it. Of the first-on-the-scene photographers who snapped photos or recorded video on the ground and in the air that fateful Saturday, two are dead from radiation-related disease and one was constantly ill from the Chernobyl exposure for years before dying in a 2015 car accident.
Maybe my silence has propagated Yury’s guilt, widened that dark spot on his heart. I’m truly sorry, Yury. I was so wrapped up in telling the rest of the Chernobyl story that I forgot to tell yours. To your homeland and mine, I say stop the sludge-flinging and blaming and cramming fault under calculated layers of classified deception.
A man who believed that the truth will set you free, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, espoused, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
The Soviet government hid the truth from its unsuspecting citizens and the entire planet, while we sometimes hide the truth from even ourselves. I challenge us all to hold to the unarmed truth and inspire others to do that same.
This one is for you, Yury. May your mind and heart live free. Da. Da. Da.
On April 26, 2016, the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, national foxnews.com published a condensed version of this article by Beth.