On April 26 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine blew up. Facing nuclear disaster on an unprecedented scale, Soviet authorities responded by sending thousands of ill-equipped men into the radioactive hell. In an extract from a new book by Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, eyewitnesses recall the terrible human cost of a catastrophe still unfolding today
When a routine test went catastrophically wrong, a chain reaction went out of control creating a fireball that blew off the reactor's 1,000-tonne steel-and-concrete lid. There were 31 fatalities as an immediate result of the explosion and acute radiation exposure would end the lives of hundreds of others in the days that followed.
Evacuation of local residents was delayed by the Soviet authorities' unwillingness to admit the gravity of the incident. Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area in Ukraine and Belarus.
Bags of sand were dropped on to the reactor fire from the open doors of helicopters (analysts now think this did more harm than good). When the fire finally stopped, men climbed on to the roof to clear the radioactive debris. The machines brought in broke down because of the radiation. The men barely lasted more than a few weeks, suffering lingering, painful deaths. But had this effort not been made, the disaster might have been much worse.
As a result of the accident 485 villages and settlements in the surrounding countryside became uninhabitable, and 70 of those had to be completely demolished, dug up and carried away in trucks to be buried.
What follows is the story of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of one of the firemen sent in to tackle the blaze on the night of the explosion.
We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, "I love you." But I didn't know then how much. I had no idea. We lived next to the fire station where he worked. One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. "Close the window and go back to sleep. There's a fire at the reactor. I'll be back soon."
Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful.
They went off just as they were, in their shirt sleeves. No one told them that they needed special gear. They stamped on the bits of burning debris that had been shot into the fields by the explosion.
At seven in the morning I was told he was in the hospital. I ran there but the police had already encircled it, and they weren't letting anyone through, only ambulances. The policemen shouted: "The ambulances are radioactive stay away!"
I saw him. He was all swollen. You could barely see his eyes.
"He needs milk. Lots of milk," my friend said. "They should drink at least three litres each."
"But he doesn't like milk."
"He'll drink it now."
Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital would get sick themselves and die. But we didn't know that then.
I couldn't get into the hospital that evening. The doctor came out and said, yes, they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothes. The clothes they'd worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with their bags, but the plane was already gone. They had tricked us.
When I got back to the fire station they measured me with a dosimeter. My clothes, bag, purse, shoes - they were all "hot". And they took that all away from me right there. Even my underwear. The only thing they left was my money.
The hospital in Moscow was a special hospital, for radiology, and you couldn't get in without a pass. I gave some money to the woman at the door, and she said, "Go ahead." Then I had to ask someone else - to beg them. Finally I'm sitting in the office of the head radiologist. Right away she said: "All right, listen: his central nervous system is badly affected, and his skull."
OK, I'm thinking, so he'll be a little dizzy.
"And listen: if you start crying, I'll kick you out right away. No hugging or kissing. Don't even get near him. You have half an hour."
He looks so funny, he's got pyjamas on for a size 48, and he's a size 52. The sleeves are too short, the trousers are too short. But his face isn't swollen any more. They were given some sort of fluid. I say, "Where'd you run off to?" He wants to hug me. The doctor won't let him. "Sit, sit," she says. "No hugging in here."
He started to change; every day I saw him change. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks - at first there were little sores, and then they grew. The skin came off in layers - as white film ... the colour of his face ... his body ... blue, red, grey-brown.
The only thing that saved me was that it happened so fast; there wasn't any time to think, there wasn't any time to cry. It was a hospital for people with serious radiation poisoning. Fourteen days. In 14 days a person dies. When he turned his head, there'd be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: "It's convenient, you don't need a comb." Soon they cut all his hair off.
I tell the nurse: "He's dying." And she says to me: "What did you expect? He got 1,600 roentgen. Four hundred is a lethal dose. You're sitting next to a nuclear reactor."
When they all died, they refurbished the hospital. They scraped down the walls and dug up the floor. When he died, they dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swollen up. They buried him barefoot. My love.
Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev - one of those responsible for constructing the shield over the Chernobyl power station.
There was a moment when there was the danger of a nuclear explosion, and they had to get the water out from under the reactor, so that a mixture of uranium and graphite wouldn't get into it - with the water, they would have formed a critical mass. The explosion would have been between three and five megatons. This would have meant that not only Kiev and Minsk, but a large part of Europe would have been uninhabitable. Can you imagine it? A European catastrophe.
So here was the task: who would dive in there and open the safety valve so we could pump out the water? They promised them a car, an apartment, aid for their families until the end of time. They searched for volunteers. And they found them! The boys dived, many times, and they pumped out the water, and the unit was given 7,000 roubles. They forgot about the cars and apartments they promised - that's not why they dived. These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice.
And what about the soldiers who worked on the roof of the reactor? 3,600 soldiers worked on the roof to clear the debris and get it ready so we could build the concrete shield. These guys got it the worst. They had lead vests, but the radiation was coming from below, and they weren't protected there. They were wearing ordinary, cheap imitation-leather boots. They spent about a minute and a half, two minutes on the roof each day. They gathered fuel and graphite from the reactor, bits of concrete and metal. It took about 20-30 seconds to fill a wheelbarrow, and then another 30 seconds to throw the "garbage" off the roof. These special wheelbarrows weighed 40 kilos just by themselves. So you can picture it: a lead vest, masks, the wheelbarrows, and insane speed.
No one was really supposed to go up there. The job was supposed to be done by radio-controlled robots that the Americans and the Japanese gave us, but the radiation disrupted their electronics and they broke down after a few minutes.
The most reliable "robots" were the soldiers. They were christened the "green robots" [from the colour of their uniforms]. They slept on the ground in tents. They were young guys. These people don't exist any more, just the documents in our museum, with their names.
Arkady Filin - one of the so-called liquidators (people whose job it was to dig up and bury all the contaminated land and property in the huge area around Chernobyl)
You immediately found yourself in this fantastic world, where the apocalypse met the stone age. We lived in the forest, in tents, 200km from the reactor. There were between 25 and 40 of us; some of us had university degrees or diplomas. I'm a history teacher, for example. Instead of machine guns they gave us shovels. We buried trash heaps and gardens. The women in the villages watched us and crossed themselves. We had gloves, masks with respirators and white surgical robes.
The sun beat down on us. We showed up in their yards like demons. They didn't understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their vegetables when they looked just like ordinary vegetables. The old women would cross themselves and say, "Boys, what is this - is it the end of the world?"
In the house the stove's on, the meat is frying. You put a dosimeter to it, and you find it's not a stove, it's a little nuclear reactor. I saw a man who watched his house get buried. We buried houses, wells, trees. We buried the earth. We'd cut things down, roll them up into big plastic sheets. We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into 1.5m pieces and packed them in plastic sheets and threw them into graves.
Outside the villages we dug up the diseased top layer of soil, loaded it into trucks and took it to waste burial sites. I thought that a waste burial site would be a complex pice of engineering, but it turned out to be an ordinary pit. We picked up the earth and rolled it, like big carpets. We'd pick up the whole green mass of it, with grass, flowers, roots. It was work for madmen. If we weren't drinking like crazy every night, I doubt we'd have been able to take it. Our psyches would have broken down. We created hundreds of kilometres of torn-up, barren earth.
There was an emphasis on our being heroes. Once a week someone who was digging really well would receive a certificate of merit before all the other men. The Soviet Union's best grave digger. It was crazy.