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Fireman and Soldier - Vasily Tychomirov and Pjotr Khmel

Background - March 27, 2006
In the Chernobyl workers' town of Pripiyat, the alarm sounded shortly after the explosion. Pjotr Khmel was at home when he received a phone call from his commanding officer at the fire station. Things were hectic and rushed. The firemen did not know exactly what to expect: "They told us the plant had blown up, but we didn't believe it. During our training they had told us it was not possible." Soldier Vasily Tychomirov had also been told it was not possible: "Not even if an aeroplane crashed into the nuclear plant." During the night of the disaster Tychomirov first passed Block no. 3: "It was raining ashes and debris". He also recalls the terrifying beauty of Reactor no. 4: "I was only twenty-two years old, but I will never forget it. The roof was like an open book and there was a magnificent light; a beautiful blue fire".

The deserted city of Pripyat. Pripyat was home to the workers of Chernobyl and their families (approximately 50 000 people). It's now a nuclear ghost town. The Chernobyl nuclear power station is visible in background.

Fireman Khmel was already working on top of that damaged roof: "Itwasn't a blazing fire. It burnt like a candle, but the temperature gotvery high. We did all we could to prevent it from catching onto Blockno.3". He worked between two and five that night, until he got sentaway by his commander. "I got to the medical post with acute radiationsyndrome and saw my father and my friends were there as well. Then Ifainted".

Anatoly Ivanchenko was also on duty, working at one of the otherblocks. With everything happening, it was pretty obvious something hadgone wrong, but it didn't really faze him; he had already witnessed anuclear accident before: "In 1982, but that was way before Glasnost.Finland, Norway and Switzerland raised questions, but the Soviet Unionwas like a big elephant." Ivanchenko laughs: "And these tiny countrieswere like little barking dogs! Ha! The elephant just ignored them ofcourse." On the night of Chernobyl, Ivanchenko did phone home to tellhis wife to stay in and close the windows.

Only in the morning did Ivanchenko realise what had happened inChernobyl. "My shift ended at 8AM and I went home. Then I saw that thereactor block had exploded." Except for those who were informed byfriends or relatives on duty at the plant, nobody in the workers' townof Pripiyat had been warned. "There was this young mother with astroller and I walked over to her and quickly told her to go backinside. You have to understand, in those days, doing this could havegot me into a lot of trouble with the intelligence people." That womanstarted screaming: "What's wrong with you guys from the plant. Leave mealone!" It took 36 hours before a reassuring woman's voice announcedthat inhabitants only needed to pack for three days and that they wouldbe taken elsewhere. Then the model town was evacuated. Not just forthree days, but forever.

Most of the nuclear plants at Chernobyl continued working until thelast one was shut down in 2000, and until he quit for another job,Ivanchenko kept working there: "For another three years, three monthsand three days." I am a strong guy," says Pjotr Khmel, the fireman."People think I am a bodyguard or a bouncer in a nightclub." It wasonly when he was taken to Hospital no. 6 in Moscow that he startedrealising the force of the assault on his body: "My temperature wasrising and I started to lose my hair. When I looked into the mirror Ihad to cry, because even my moustache was falling out." He stayed forthree months. His brother and his wife came to visit; fifteen minutes atime with a KGB officer pulling up a chair to make sure conversationwas conducted properly. Only a limited number of liquidators werebrought over to Moscow for tests. Khmel's father, who worked as adriver for the Kiev fire brigade, had worked in Chernobyl on the nightof the disaster. He was exposed to a much higher dose of radiation, hisson says: "But he was never taken in to hospital. He died of stomachcancer last year."

Soldier Vasily Tychomirov was awarded a Red Star for bravery. In 2000 he was treated for thyroid cancer.

Anatoly Ivanchenko, who had kept on working at Chernobyl, is at home,sitting on his bed, training his arms with light weights. It has onlybeen a week since his legs were amputated because of thrombosis andgangrene: "But I also smoked," he says. As such, many liquidators donot oppose nuclear energy. They say it's just a shame about the humanfactor. Or, says Ivanchenko: "It's a clever hat, worn by a stupid head."

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The above text is an extract from the forth-coming book;Certificate no. 000358/Nuclear devastation in Kazakhstan, Ukraine,Belarus, the Urals and Siberia. © (Photography) 2006 Robert Knoth, ©(Text) 2006 Antoinette de Jong.

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