The Making of “Chernobyl Breathes Through Us”
Gabriel Orgrease

“A large number of people live in areas classified as part of zone four, bringing the total number of people still living on land contaminated with radiation to 2,280,777. Overall, 3,048,318 citizens of Ukraine bear the status of the Chernobyl disaster victim, including 644,249 children and teenagers. Around 4,000 of Ukrainian families have lost their breadwinners through death or ill health due to the Chernobyl disaster. These include 400 families in the city of Kiev, 615 families in Kiev oblast, 267 in Zitomir oblast, 248 in Kharkov oblast, 206 in Donetsk oblast, and 206 in Dnepropetrovsk oblast.
        “These are the official figures but many believe the reality is much worse because these data do not include the 3 million people living in the capital of Kiev, which is less than 100 kilometres away from Chernobyl. Residents of Kiev were exposed to fallout from the accident including radioactive iodine. According to research conducted at the Nuclear Research Institute and the Geology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Kiev should have been classified as part of the third zone. The City Council and the Administration of the city have several times drawn the issue to the attention of the highest levels of the government, but to no avail. It would have increased by almost 4 million the number of official victims and those to be evacuated.
        “There has been a steady deterioration in the health of Ukraine’s population since 1986 with rising death rates and falling birth rates so that now there is negative population growth. While some of this may be attributed to the economic crisis which has swept the region following the collapse of the USSR, statistics show that the health problems are much more severe in the contaminated territories. These areas have seen the sharpest increases in cardiovascular disease, nervous system disorders and blood diseases as well as an increased incidence of cancer and widespread immune depression. Ukraine’s doctors are aware of these developments but lack the resources to investigate them more thoroughly.”
—Testimony Report, Greenpeace

“At least three million children in Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation require physical treatment (due to the Chernobyl accident). Not until 2016, at the earliest, will we know the full number of those likely to develop serious medical conditions.”
—Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations

On the morning of 9/11/01, I was in Brooklyn preparing to take the subway beneath the river into Manhattan. After the first of the Twin Towers was struck, my brother called me from Houston with the news, which cut short any plans I had to go into the heart of the city that day. I mention that the first news for me was via an out-of-town call because I think it odd how the world informs us. Quite often we get our information in small packets and learn of near events first from far distances, a silent wind that carries a message of death.

I spent the remainder of that day watching a grainy black and white television, or going out and watching people straggle across the Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges. I will never forget that afternoon, being along the eastern waterfront of the East River in Long Island City and looking off toward the black smoke that was the towers. Except for that, it was such an incredibly beautiful blue-sky day.

My business is repairing the exteriors of buildings, mostly of an historic nature, and mostly around the five boroughs of New York. For two decades I had been in the habit of taking photographs from a rooftop or other vantage point in the course of my work, using the Twin Towers as a focal point to the geography of each place.

I participated in the trauma, the panic, the anxiety and foreboding of doom and depression that everyone in the area felt at that time. Like many people, I had my own reasons to be close and far.

After a truck bomb was exploded under one of the towers in 1993, I was involved with a small project to assist in sampling of wall materials from the B-4 garage level. At the time, I was impressed with the oddities of the security system. There were places you could not go within the structures without being stopped to show an ID clearance, and other areas you could simply wander around. It usually took an hour to get our tool truck into the garage each day, as all of the tools had to be removed, inspected, and put back into the truck. In the end all the efforts made to secure the building were to no avail; the mix of human ingenuity and technology was not exactly predictable.

The unpredictability that was the case with the Twin Towers, and that of the disaster at Chernobyl, seem to be historical partners, in that they are enormous examples of the failure of human and technological systems.

Ironically, on 9/11 I received an e-mail (sent on the day a few hours after the disaster) from an irate client. We had been doing work on a building up in the West 140s, on a penthouse terrace, and the client was complaining that our workers had sat on his lawn furniture and therefore had reduced their useful lifespan—and that their disrespect was a case of egregious trespass. He proclaimed to us that he was the sole owner, with all and only rights to use his lawn furniture.

Chernobyl, the breaching of a nuclear containment vessel in 1986, had a much greater long-range, immediate, and lingering effect on a human population than the event at the World Trade Center. It seems nearly forgotten in the media, at least here in the United States; it is not particularly on anyone’s radar. With the recent political events in the Ukraine, I heard no mention in the news of the underlying economic devastation that the region has not recovered from as a result of Chernobyl. The reactor, a complex of large reactors, is located in a prime agricultural region of eastern Europe.

The deposition of concentrations of radiation, carried by the wind, shows not a solid swath of contamination, but pockets spread out to the northeast, as if something red had been splattered across the map. Again, the silent wind brings death—in this case a potential for death that lingers for decades, is invisible, and continues to eat away at the human population. The contained reactor, housed in what is called the “sarcophagus,” continues to leak radiation into the air, the water, and the soil. There are plans for a new containment structure, but there are costs and insufficient money.

I had not been seeking to learn about Chernobyl. I was happily ignorant. My perception was pretty much limited to a picture of children, no longer able to see live birds, visiting a stuffed bird wired to a dead stick in a museum. It was something that I had seen somewhere, possibly in an old National Geographic. In a way, Chernobyl came to me, and it came through Poland.

In my work, I network with a community of traditional tradespeople who do things like stonemasonry, timber framing, carpentry, metalwork, and blacksmithing, and each year we gather together for a conference and workshop. We talk about old buildings and how to fix them. A month after 9/11, in October, the annual gathering happened to be at Floyd Bennett Field, which is at the lower end of Brooklyn, near the water, the far south end of Flatbush Avenue. Now part of a national park, this spacious, partly rundown field was the first airport in New York and a famous location in aviation and military history. Wrong Way Corrigan, Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes were associated with the field.

In 1933 Italo Balbo of Italy led a group of twenty-five seaplanes from Italy, to Amsterdam, Iceland, Labrador, and Chicago. On their return to Italy from Chicago they stopped at Floyd Bennett Field. The flight marked the tenth anniversary of Mussolini’s rise to power. It also marked the first occasion of a European military force flying to America. I met an elderly gentleman at the field involved with the restoration of historic aircraft who as a kid was at the field on the day that Balbo and his squadron landed.

We tradespeople took to heart that we would not let Al Qaeda chase us away, that we would not succumb to our fears, and we camped right at the field there in Brooklyn, holding our workshop in a now unused hangar. For a few days, as always, we told stories, swapped lies, and bonded. At night the New York City Police helicopters would fly overhead, practicing with their searchlights.

Along to the workshops came some friends from Poland, a country that has a long history of rebuilding its historic buildings—in fact, rebuilding entire portions of urban environments—and they brought with them a dream to reconstruct a 17th-century log and timber synagogue in the Bialystok (northeastern) area of Poland. The original synagogue had been exploded by the Nazis during World War 2. Our Polish friends also brought with them their empathy for our recent events, and solace from a culture that has endured much devastation.

Subsequently, they invited a gaggle of us to travel to Bialystok, and in the course of the experience of being there as a member of an international delegation, I came across Alyosha—whose name is not actually Alyosha, but otherwise my telling of the conversation at the picnic table is a not-too-shabby rendition of the encounter. We did not all speak the same language; as I recall there may have been six languages being spoken concurrently, and this without any official translators. There was a good deal of pantomime.

The story sort of fell out of Alyosha in bits and pieces, and with each new piece of information, I found myself asking him more questions. I was astounded at what I was learning. In our visit we had already undergone a fairly thorough exposure to the Holocaust. We had met witnesses and heard their testimony in tears. And we were immersed in the poverty of the region and its pride. (This was my second visit to Poland, but the first time I spent almost my entire visit in an intensive care cardiac ward.) There is something about Poland for me, though I am not of Polish descent.

As I said, there is an incredible sense of pride in eastern Europe. At one home where we visited, that of a very fine weaver and cook, where we were served an excellent Polish meal, on visiting the outhouse I saw that someone had crawled in below, prior to our visit, and spread out clean newspapers. For me it was a particularly touching gesture of kindness and consideration.

“Alyosha” told us that his job in Belarus is to look after historic buildings. He is assigned to a particular open-air museum, a collection of structures similar in nature to a modest Colonial Williamsburg, only older by a few centuries. His interest in attending the workshop in Bialystok was that, within the 30 kilometer radius of contamination surrounding Chernobyl, a substantial part of which is in Belarus, there are religious shrines and other beloved historic sites that the population can no longer visit. It is his problem to figure out if the buildings can be documented (measured and drawn), reconstructed elsewhere from scratch, or somehow dismantled, decontaminated, and rebuilt in a noncontaminated zone. A lot of issues come into play with this scenario, but it has a very strong component of sense of place.

Chernobyl has had strong impact on the lives of children, and of course not just a cultural impact. If one looks long enough, there are remarkable photos of deformed children that can be found on the Internet. They are there to be seen.

Looking for information online, the first thing I found was a travel journal from a young woman who loves to cruise on her motorcycle, who went wandering in the contamination zone taking photos of the empty towns, the ghost villages with the toy dolls abandoned in their cribs, the plates and silverware set out upon modest tablecloths, simple everyday scenes suddenly cut short and frozen. Before long I found accounts of radiation sickness, to the melting of people’s brains, to tumors. I found poetry. I found an account of the victims’ not having a clue what was going on with them as they were herded onto buses to Kiev. They watched from the bus windows as their pet dogs that barked along behind the bus were shot by laughing soldiers. It struck me as not a whole lot different from reading about the actions of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen as they wandered from town to town on a blue bus, killing Jews with a highly developed technique of sardine packing by day and drinking and feasting by night to keep their spirits up from all of the hard work.

The first night after my encounter with Alyosha, while sleeping in the businessmen’s hotel in Poland, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, I had nightmares tied up with my own psychosis, which relates to my illegitimacy and a haunting feeling running like a streak through the spine of my life, a fear of not being wanted. It was as if I were feeling there in eastern Europe the ghosts of the millions of humans who had been exterminated because they were not wanted by Hitler, or not wanted by Stalin, or simply not wanted by their neighbors...and then there was this Chernobyl annihilation, which seems to have occurred simply from an unfounded faith in nuclear technology and a thirst for power. But perhaps also from an assumption that placing nuclear facilities of that kind in a particular area was somehow worth the risk.

When reading about nuclear energy I am always troubled by the thought that we are not able to make the trains run without their occasionally derailing, running into each other, or exploding. I also thought of Bhopal, as a disaster of technology, though not a nuclear one.

I did read somewhere that writers tend to shy away from telling large stories. Where do you begin? Where do you end?

Alyosha told us that local people from the Chernobyl area have been returning to their homeland, contaminated though it is, mainly because the grandmothers return, and with the strength of a matrilineal culture entire families follow after the grandmothers. It is an invisible menace that they face, and for many it is a rather superstitious and religious perspective that leads them.

I thought nothing of most of this and was content to be knowledgeable and passive and to continue on with my life, making a living, paying the bills, but then I read a proposal that someone had written for a book, a fiction, a novel that was based on a premise that people are returning to the contaminated zones and finding a lush and resplendent environment. Knowing that this environmental fantasy is hogwash and propaganda of a most vile and dangerous sort, there was little I could do but write a more realistic story. What if? What if it happened to us?

Since 9/11 I have endured my own low-level depression, just as many other people have. Writing a story intended to evoke the feeling in the reader of an inexplicable disaster of which we have no reasonable understanding or control has in fact provided for me a rather cheerful and cathartic play. In my writing I do not want to run from the devil—I want to run into the face of the devil and laugh.

I heard that Madame Curie died of radiation poisoning and that her papers were recently released after 60 years in contaminated storage. Her papers had to be decontaminated of radiation. I read about the young women, watch-dial painters in New Jersey, who licked their radium-paint brushes between painting each dial, and how their jaws began to turn black and then rot away as they progressed toward their death.

I heard that there are Buddhist monks of a particular sect who spend a bit of time each day looking at images of corpses with an idea (and it seems to work) that it releases them from the anxiety of death.

I live in a culture where there is news: Internet, radio, movies, television, and print. I see fiction, and fact, through a lens of massive dosages of information. At one point I was depressed about my work on the story when I found out that there was an HBO special appearing with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is a lawyer for Riverwatch in Westchester County, north up the Hudson from New York, that would reveal the imminent security dangers of the Indian Point Nuclear Reactor. This was after I had already worked out my premise of a nuclear incident occurring in New York.

A few days after 9/11 there was a report of a yellow truck going over a bridge or through a tunnel. The people I worked with were freaking that the truck would turn out to be full of chemicals or biological materials, more anthrax, or a dirty bomb. In my opinion, death will spread around in ways that we can hardly imagine, and so the reality of the danger with nuclear energy is as plausible as any other. Godzilla is often described as a metaphor for Hiroshima—a dirty suitcase bomb in New York is a metaphor for something that I have not quite yet fathomed.

I found for sale on eBay medals that were given to folks who ran into the breached Chernobyl reactor to throw sandbags at it. Most of those people are dead. One anecdote I ran across was that as workers ran into the contaminated area they had to stop and have their radiation badges checked and marked down by another worker on a clipboard. Radiation exposure is cumulative over short spans. When a worker’s dosage was in excess of the official limits, the dosage was marked down as at or below the limit. It was a supply problem of sorts, as there would otherwise have been a shortage of men available to do the work. It is not unlike the risk military personnel face when their terms are locked and they remain in hostile territory for an extended time...only the consequences of radiation poisoning are much shorter, more abrupt, and always terminal.

The medals were for sale, nice and new and clean in original boxes, for something like $3.50 each. I bought one and wore it to a conference and a young woman asked me what it was. I told her it was the medal you got for running into Chernobyl with a sandbag on your shoulder. She asked me, “Are you OK?” The joke is first off that Americans were not allowed anywhere near the breach, the second part being that if I had run into Chernobyl I would be dead.


Return to Archive