A safe passage through one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Photographs by Eddie Gerald
On April 26, 1986, Reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located in Ukraine, exploded. Nearly nine tons of radioactive materials - 90 times as much as the Hiroshima bomb - were hurled into the sky. The explosion took place at around one in the morning while the neighboring town of Pripyat slept. Within a few hours of the explosion, the townspeople fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.
As the plant was run by authorities in Moscow, the government of Ukraine did not receive prompt information on the accident. Valentyna Shevchenko, then Chairman of the Presidium of Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, recalls that Ukraine's acting Minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets phoned her at work at 9 am to report current affairs; only at the end of the conversation did he add that there had been a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but it was extinguished and everything was fine. When Shevchenko asked "How are the people?", he replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: "Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River".
By 11:00 on 27 April, buses had arrived in Pripyat to start the evacuation.The evacuation began at 14:00. A translated excerpt of the evacuation announcement follows:
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
- Evacuation announcement in Pripyat, 27 April 1986 (14:00)
To expedite the evacuation, residents were told to bring only what was necessary, and that it would only last approximately three days. As a result, most personal belongings were left behind, and remain there today. By 15:00, 53,000 people were evacuated to various villages of the Kiev region. The next day, talks began for evacuating people from the 10 km zone. Ten days after the accident, the evacuation area was expanded to 30 km (19 mi). This "exclusion zone" has remained ever since, although its shape has changed and its size has been expanded.
Today the area has largely reverted to forest, and has been overrun by wildlife because of a lack of competition with humans for space and resources. Even today, radiation levels are so high that the workers responsible for building the new steel containment structure named the New Safe Confinement (NSC) built to replace the aging and hastily built sarcophagus that currently protects Reactor No. 4, are only allowed to work five hours a day for one month before taking 15 days of rest. Ukrainian officials estimated the area would not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years.