As I examined the floor, I had no idea what I was looking at. For three decades debris on the floor had rotted and molded; paper, books, mud, leaves, peeled paint, glass, and a lone teddy bear had become a dark, grey mass. The floor was completely covered. I took one step forward, and then another. Suddenly, my foot fell through the floor. I cursed, leaped forward and landed safely inside the next room.
The guy ahead of me turned around, gestured to an unseen room around the corner and shook his head. Although there was a language barrier between us, the look on his face said it all: the floor in that room wasn't much better either.
Down the hallway I found a small dining room, with cups, plates and dishes still waiting for a long cold supper to begin. The family must have been sitting down to eat when the military arrived and forced them to evacuate. They were probably told they would return within a few days, but thirty years later the houses stand empty – the ones that can still stand, that is.
The village I was in was completely overgrown. Without people, Mother Nature had reclaimed her rightful place. Trees sprout up from inside dilapidated houses, roots crawled over concrete steps and collapsed wooden roofs fell and became waterfalls of moss. I don't know if the town had paved roads when the evacuation occurred, but there weren't any now.
This village, and hundreds of other villages inside the Exclusion Zone, was abandoned on April 28th, 1986 – exactly thirty years to the day when I arrived there. School buses rolled into the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat and picked up the citizens, who were supposedly only given five minutes to grab their personal belongings. I imagine what happened in this village is similar.
Two days before the evacuation, on April 26th 1986, this area was witness to the world's worst nuclear accident. At 1:24 in the morning, workers at the newly opened Reactor 4 in Pripyat began a standard test to simulate a meltdown in the reactor core. Warning lights and sirens came on, but that was expected, and nobody realized an actual meltdown had begun. Once it was discovered the nuclear core had become unstable, cooling water was flushed into the chamber to stop the reaction. It was too late, however, and once the water hit the superheated nuclear core, an explosion took place, blowing the 1,200 ton concrete roof clear off the building. Immediately following the first explosion was a second explosion. While the first explosion was chemical in origin, the second was nuclear. The plant would begin to emit highly radioactive steam, and that steam would drift silently towards Pripyat.
Immediately following the explosion, firefighters were brought in to put out the flames. It is believed they did not know the area was radioactive. Their job was to put out the flaming graphite before it could spread to the nearby Reactor 3, which was still in operation. These forty firefighters are considered the initial heroes, and first victims, of the accident.
Soldiers and scientists were brought in to measure the radiation of the city, and came to the conclusion the people needed to be relocated. Shortly after, the school buses would arrive, and as they left tanks would fill their place. In the following days and months the military would fight a battle against the invisible enemy that is radiation.
Meanwhile, the steam from the reactor had not stopped and had begun to drift throughout Europe. While the Soviet Union kept the severity of the explosion a secret, authorities at a Swedish nuclear facility picked up radioactive anomalies and alerted the government. Satellites were quick to redirect their cameras and the smoking abyss that was Reactor 4 became known to the world.
The steam cloud touched almost every country in Europe, bringing radiation to as far north as Norway to as far south as Italy, and as far west as France – although the French authorities claim no radioactive steam entered their airspace. While Europe was threatened by the steam, the Soviet Union would soon realize that that was the least of their problems.
Back at the Exclusion Zone, 600,000 soldiers known as "liquidators", were separated into two groups. The first was responsible for stopping the steaming nuclear breach, while the second was to kill any living animals in the area. By themselves, dogs and cats are harmless, but if a contaminated dog was to enter an inhabited area, the dust on its fur alone would make many people sick.
Helicopters started flying over the reactor, dumping pails of special sandy clay to seal the breach. In total, five thousand tons of this sand was poured into the hole. One of these helicopters would collide with a nearby crane and crash near the building, killing the entire crew. The wreckage can still be seen at a nearby junkyard.
While the sand lowered the amount of steam coming out of the breach, it was soon discovered there was an additional problem below the reactor. The cooling water and subsequent water from the firefighters had pooled below the reactor core. If the molten magma from the reactor was to melt through the concrete and come in contact with the water, a third explosion would occur, one that could be 200 times larger than the Hiroshima blast – or about 200 miles wide with an additional 800 mile wide fireball. If the chamber was not drained of water and an explosion was to occur, Europe itself could become uninhabitable.
Divers were able to enter the reactor from the sewer system and they discovered their fears had become true. The magma had already begun to melt through the floor. Swashing and swimming through the water, the crew of three people were able to open the gates and drain the basement. Reports vary upon the health of the three when they resurfaced, with original reports saying they died in the plant, secondary reports saying they died shortly after and most recent reports saying one of the members died as late as 2005.
It was then decided the best course of action was to build a protective shelter around the reactor to prevent the radiation from spreading. The new structure – deemed the "sarcophagus" – was the largest civil engineering task in history, involving over a quarter million construction workers.
Construction had just begun when it was discovered the roof of the building was covered in debris. This debris was too radioactive to work around so it needed to be removed. At first, the military used robots to remove the debris, believing they would be immune to the radioactivity. One of these robots was even a former lunar rover. However, about a half hour into the clean up the robots began to malfunction and operate erratically. One of them even threw itself off the building and into the radioactive breach below, where it remains to this day.
It was then decided that the debris needed to be removed by hand, using soldiers dressed in lead. These soldiers, nicknamed "Bio-Robots" by the military, would run onto the roof and have between 40 to 45 seconds to get a shovelful of debris and throw it off the edge of the building. Any additional exposure to the radiation would have serious health effects. Even after only being on the roof for 45 seconds, soldiers reported feeling nauseous, with one saying it felt like a vampire had drained all the blood from his body. Of the 600,000 liquidators, 50,000 participated in this clean up.
With the roof cleared, the sarcophagus was completed and was expected to last thirty years.
While both Pripyat and Chernobyl City were evacuated in the days following the explosion, Chernobyl City currently has 730 residents, which are all military personnel. Pripyat, however, remains abandoned, minus the area where a second sarcophagus is being erected.
While the Exclusion Zone was technically cut off from the rest of the world, many people entered the zone illegally. Some were curious tourists, wanting to see the abandoned cities, and others were people who had been evacuated years past, wanting to come home. A third group of people started coming in as well, known as "stalkers". There were two kinds of these stalkers. The first kinds were vandals; they smashed windows, broke down doors, trashed apartment complexes and dug around in basements. Some of these stalkers painted images throughout the Zone, either inside the partly completed Cooling Tower 5 or outside on the streets of Pripyat. The second kind of stalkers stole from the Zone, and sold contaminated items on the black market. These items would be responsible for the deaths of many people.
In 2011, the Exclusion Zone officially opened to tourists. While there are several companies that offer tours, the company I went with was ChernobylWel.come, who charged 500 Ukrainian Hryvnia ($26 CAD, or $20 USD) to take a two-day "Special Pripyat Tour" where we would spend the night on the grounds in the local hotel.
When visiting Chernobyl, it is recommended to wear pants and a long sleeve shirt. While you might find yourself uncomfortably warm wearing a long sleeve shirt, it is for your own protection. The most dangerous radioactive waves – beta waves – can be stopped by a single sheet of paper. Uncovered arms pose potential health hazards and can lead to beta wave exposure. Many people also wore hats and gloves, but it wasn't required.
A second pair of shoes is also recommended in case your shoes break or are torn when walking through the debris. A face mask is provided by ChernobylWel.come to filter out the dust and asbestos, but I found mine to be incredibly uncomfortable so you might want to bring your own.
Geiger counters are provided as well, but there are only so many available, so if you want to go on your own on the tour, either have a buddy and use their Geiger counter or bring your own. Geiger counters will tell you when you're approaching a radioactive hotspot, in which there are hundreds throughout the area. You might also want to bring a flashlight as some areas that you'll be visiting are quite dark.
You'll also want to leave your tripod at home, as it is forbidden to place anything on the ground.
To my surprise, I discovered the city of Pripyat has no cell service. This might seem like a no-brainer for some people, but I read several articles that said they actually had very good service there. The only places I was able to get service was at our hotel and on the roof of one of the apartment buildings. I went into the tour hoping I could live stream what I was seeing on Facebook or Snapchat, but I wasn't able to. Keep this in mind when visiting the Exclusion Zone: you will be cut off from the rest of the world.
This is the first part of my two part "Into the Exclusion Zone" series. I broke this into two parts because I felt it was important to discuss what happened here, and how to prepare if you plan to visit.
Visiting the Exclusion Zone is not only physically exhausting (as you'll be doing a lot of walking) but also emotionally exhausting. You will see a lot of very sad things. If you are overly sensitive to some of these things, you might want to skip the second part of the series. There is a lot to see, and a lot to take in, and some of the images might disturb you.
Welcome to the Exclusion Zone.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.