A Worker Recalls the Chernobyl Disaster

The Associated Press
Tuesday, April 25, 2006; 2:13 PM

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster approached, Yuri Andreyev remembered his exams for a job at the nuclear power plant. Asked to propose a scenario of a reactor explosion, he says he offered three _ and was rebuked. "Keep it in your mind, man _ Soviet reactors cannot explode," the examiners told him.

On April 26, 1986, they were proved dreadfully wrong. One of Chernobyl's four reactors blew up in the world's worst nuclear disaster.

When Andreyev awoke that Saturday, a few hours after the blast, word was already on the street. His agitated wife, Alla, told him traders were being advised not to sell vegetables because of radiation. But his examiners had told him it couldn't happen, and he brushed off the news as rumors.

He took his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Elina, out to play on her tricycle and saw a typical spring day in Pripyat, the city built for Chernobyl's workers. People were sunbathing and sipping beers. Grandmothers watched little kids playing in sandboxes.

Then he saw policemen with radiation detectors and grew uneasy. When the police refused to show him their readings, his suspicions grew and he headed to the town outskirts.

In the distance was shattered Reactor No. 4, smoke spewing above it, ambulances and buses rushing from the plant.

"I got scared _ first of all because of my daughter, grasped her and ran home. I told my wife not to go outside and to close all the windows," Andreyev said.

Then he took the bus to work at Reactor No. 2. From the bus window, as they passed stricken No. 4, "I felt its deadly breath."

He saw firefighters spraying water that simply evaporated. The reactor building's roof was so hot it glowed red. Firemen were sinking to their ankles in melted asphalt, he said.

At his own job site, chaos prevailed. Five hundred yards away, water poured from pipes, causing a short circuit in the No. 2 reactor that could have triggered another explosion. Much of the water apparently was radioactive, Andreyev said. "Those who walked in this water had the skin peeled from their legs in a week."

"The water was coming and coming, and nobody knew how to switch the reactor off," Andreyev said.

As a senior engineer in the plant, he had to figure out what to do. He submitted a plan over the telephone to top plant officials holed up in the plant's bomb shelter. it worked: his studies had paid off.

Coming back to Pripyat, he saw huge crowds at the pier on the Pripyat River, shoving to board boats. Some of the boats grew so crowded that windows shattered.

Andreyev's wife and daughter were evacuated to Russia the next day.

Chernobyl's staff was down from 6,000 to about 800. Andreyev was among them, living with other workers in a commandeered children's summer camp near Kiev and being driven 75 miles to the plant every day.

It was grueling work, cooling switched-off reactors No. 1 and 2. He repeatedly fainted, and doctors repeatedly declared him healthy.

His vocal cords were burned by radiation and he is still slightly hoarse. He also has a blood disorder, but at age 56 his spirit is strong. Retired in 1989, he now heads an advocacy group for some 400,000 people who were displaced or made ill by the disaster.

"I'm still alive, regardless of everything," Andreyev said with a smile.

© 2006 The Associated Press