Fireman and Soldier - Vasily Tychomirov and Pjotr Khmel

Page - April 20, 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 airplane 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."

Fireman Khmel was already working on top of that damaged roof. "It wasn't a blazing fire. It burnt like a candle, but the temperature got very high. We did all we could to prevent it from catching onto Block no.3." He worked between two and five that night, until he got sent away by his commander. "I got to the medical post with acute radiation syndrome and saw my father and my friends were there as well. Then I fainted."

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

Only in the morning did Ivanchenko realize what had happened in Chernobyl. "My shift ended at 8:00 a.m. and I went home. Then I saw that the reactor block had exploded." Except for those who were informed by friends or relatives on duty at the plant, nobody in the workers' town of Pripiyat had been warned. "There was this young mother with a stroller and I walked over to her and quickly told her to go back inside. You have to understand, in those days, doing this could have got me into a lot of trouble with the intelligence people." That woman started screaming, "What's wrong with you guys from the plant. Leave me alone!" It took 36 hours before a reassuring woman's voice announced that inhabitants only needed to pack for three days and that they would be taken elsewhere. Then the model town was evacuated. Not just for three days, but forever.

Most of the nuclear plants at Chernobyl continued working until the last one was shut down in 2000, and until he quit for another job, Ivanchenko kept working there.  "For another three years, three months and 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 was only when he was taken to Hospital no. 6 in Moscow that he started realizing the force of the assault on his body. "My temperature was rising and I started to lose my hair. When I looked into the mirror I had to cry, because even my moustache was falling out." He stayed for three months. His brother and his wife came to visit; 15 minutes at a time with a KGB officer pulling up a chair to make sure conversation was conducted properly. Only a limited number of liquidators were brought over to Moscow for tests. Khmel's father, who worked as a driver for the Kiev fire brigade, had worked in Chernobyl on the night of the disaster. He was exposed to a much higher dose of radiation.  His son says, "But he was never taken in to hospital. He died of stomach cancer 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 only been a week since his legs were amputated because of thrombosis and gangrene. "But I also smoked," he says. As such, many liquidators do not oppose nuclear energy. They say it's just a shame about the human factor. Or, says Ivanchenko, "It's a clever hat, worn by a stupid head."


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.