The men and women who were sent in to the closed zone of Chernobyl to deal with the aftermath of the disaster are called "the liquidators." The stories of these estimated 600,000 workers could provide the scripts to many a Hollywood movie. The liquidators flew straight into the radioactive clouds to battle the fire and extinguish it. They destroyed and buried contaminated villages, put new tarmac on the country roads and sprayed down the roofs with special chemicals. They evacuated the inhabitants, transported the cows and pigs to new stables and they took care of a whole range of other jobs that had to be done. Very often they had no protection against the deadly radiation.
His shift had started at midnight. Yuri Korneev worked at reactor block no. 4. He showed up at work as usual, not knowing that during the night of April 26, 1986, the night crew had received special instructions from Moscow to conduct an experiment.
"There was a very loud bang," Korneev remembers. "We didn't know what had happened." The explosion was so powerful it blew the 1,000-ton roof off the building. Large quantities of radioactive elements were launched high up into the atmosphere and spread across the entire northern hemisphere.
Korneev stood transfixed, hypnotized by an amazing light. "It was a beautiful fire, incredibly brilliant." The fire damaged his eyes, but at first he didn't notice and continued his work as if switched on automatic pilot to be able to cope with the crisis. "We had to get rid of the helium in the building and prevent the oil from catching fire." His report is modest but colleagues explain how Korneev prevented an even bigger disaster by putting out the flames as the supply pipes leading to 38 tons of fuel were already on fire. It didn't last long. "I could hardly see and then I started feeling very weak." He ended up in a chaotic medical unit. "There were people throwing up everywhere. They went on until they had nothing left in their stomachs." These were the clear symptoms of acute radiation disease caused by an overdose of gamma radiation.
Ambulances were racing back and forth. In Chernobyl, Korneev waited patiently until it was his turn to be transported to hospital. In his quiet voice with a minimum of words Korneev relates the events of that catastrophic night. "There was a doctor. I got an injection. I was taken to bed and I fell asleep."
The morning after the accident, Yuri Korneev woke up in Pripiyat hospital. "I felt much better. The weather was fine. The people seemed happy and we even got beer handed to us through the open windows, but later that day the night crew that had been present during the explosion was transported by buses to Kiev's Borispol airport. They flew us to Moscow; the Tupolev 154 that took us was packed." Around Korneev there was a buzz of people chatting about what had happened and how on Earth it could have happened. Korneev doesn't remember much. He kept falling asleep. "I was tired. I was so very tired."
"Real hell didn't start until Moscow," says Yuri Korneev in Kiev almost 20 years later. "My friends were dying around me. I had worked for years with many of them." Some of the men were buried in lead-lined coffins against the radiation. From Hospital no. 6, Yuri Korneev tried to send a message to his wife. "But she had already been evacuated from Pripiyat; she had been told that I had not survived."
According to the Veterans' Union, Korneev is the only one still alive of the group of workers on duty in Block no. 4 when the explosion happened. His radiation dose is considered too high for him to ever again set foot onto the premises of a nuclear plant. "It can be acutely fatal." He tried to find work, but as soon as his medical files were placed on the table, the interviews swiftly ended. Korneev, by now, is not strong enough any more to do any physical work. He just carries on waiting and wondering if that time bomb set inside him will go off. "I go to my farmhouse, grow my own vegetables and eat some honey."
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.