Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Remembering Chernobyl: “If We’re All Still Alive in the Morning”

What happens when you turn on the radio at one part of the day and classical music is playing, then continues for several hours? If you’re a Soviet citizen, you know something already did; you just have yet to figure out what terrible event it is. On this day thirty years ago, the worst man-made disaster in history occurred when reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, undergoing systems testing, experienced a power surge, subsequently exploding, spitting a plume of radioactive fallout that was to drift over the western USSR and Europe. In true Soviet fashion the government attempted to keep the catastrophe under wraps, but ended up making the announcement the following day after an alarm system at a Swedish nuclear power plant was tripped. Paul at The Chernobyl Gallery writes that “[a]ccording to official post-Soviet data about 60% of the radioactive fallout [was found to have] landed in Belarus.”

It’s hard to overstate the insanely horrific anomalies that began to occur without delay. One minute’s worth of exposure during an attempt to lower control rods sent such a large dose of radiation into three men they were among the first to die in a Moscow hospital. They were buried in sealed coffins made of lead. Another who had leaned against the door to hold it open for them leaned into radioactive dust; after years of skin grafting operations and other after affects, he says he’d been advised not to have any more children as he may have received DNA damage.

Comrades! What heat is so intense it can harm your DNA? Nuclear fuel that burns for 10 days, that’s what. Fuel so intense that sand deposited atop to cool it actually creates a greater danger owing to the compressed conditions. Even fire doesn’t like to be stifled and the threat of it exploding, the results—unimaginable. Well, they can be contemplated, but the process will curl your hair. And if yours is already curly, prepare to buy a wig.

There were, of course, rescue crews. The firemen who arrived first on the scene by protocol were not permitted to go near the destroyed reactor, but they had a moral obligation. They would not leave people to die, especially alone.

Anatoli Zakharov, from the night crew and who had worked at Chernobyl long enough to have seen the reactor built from the inside out, recounted 10 years ago: “I remember joking to the others, ‘There must be an incredible amount of radiation here. We’ll be lucky if we’re all still alive in the morning.’”

Tomorrow: A review of Marina Julia Neary’s semi-autobiographical novel,   Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy.

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat.
Image: VOA/Wiki Commons


Higginbotham, Adam. Chernobyl 20 Years On.” The Guardian. March 25, 2006. Web. April 23, 2016.

Lallanilla, Marc. “Chernobyl: Facts About the Nuclear Disaster.” Live Science. September 25, 2013. Web. April 24, 2016.

Paul. The Chernobyl Gallery. c. 2010. Web. April 24, 2016.

This post has been updated to reflect correction of a quote in its title. 

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