"In the afternoon, something began falling from the sky upon our island. It looked like ash from a fire. It fell on me, it fell on my wife, it fell on our infant son . . ."
So goes the story that John Anjain, once the chief magistrate of Rongelap Island in the South Pacific, never got a chance to tell the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at a hearing convened at 7 a.m. yesterday.
"It fell on the trees, and on the roofs of our houses. It fell on the reefs, and into the lagoon," according to Anjain's account, as translated from the Marshallese language.
On March 1, 1954, the United States exploded its biggest H-bomb test on Bikini, 110 miles from Rongelap - sending a cloud of fallout over Rongelap, where Anjain lived with his wife and five young sons.
Anjain appeared yesterday with a small delegation of fellow Marshall Islanders to press their claim for compensation. As a result of the fallout that for 12 hours rained down on their island 23 years ago, Anjain and some 40 other Marshallese had undergone surgery for cancer and potentially cancerous nodule which U.S. government physicians trace back to March 1, 1954.
"In the morning, the sun rose in the east," Anjain remembers. "And then something very strange happened. It looked like a second sun was rising in the west. We heard noise like thunder. We saw some strange clouds over the horizon . . ."
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who chaired the hearing, apologized for "the exigencies of time," and allotted 15 minutes for the testimony of the Marshall Islanders. He told Anjain his written statement was "very, very moving" and would be included in the record of the hearing. Anjain said he had nothing to add to his statement - speaking through another islander with better command of English.
"We were very curious about this ash falling from the sky," his account said. "Some people put it in their mouths and tasted it. One man rubbed it into his eye to see if it would cure an old ailment. People walked in it, and children played with it."
In the intervening 23 years his wife contacted cancer. A son just a year old the day the ash fell out of the sky died of leukemia. Anjain and another son had their thyroids removed because of nodules which doctors feared would turn cancerous.
Within two days of the 1954 bomb test the 82 inhibitants of Rongelap and 157 persons from Utirik Atoll were taken to Kwajalein in U.S. Navy ships. Because Rongelap was considered too radioactive the islanders were relocated for three years on another atoll. The Utirik islanders returned within three months of the bomb test.
Each year the exposed victims from the atolls have been given medical examinations by the U.S. government. Beginning in 1963, the annual survey, conducted by Dr. Robert Conard of Brookhaven Laboratories, began turning up thyroid nodules on Rongelap.
According to government publications the exposed Rongelap victims were said to have received 175 rads of radiation, the Utirik islanders only 14. A typical dental X-ray delivers about one rad to the exposed area. In recent years, however, malignant nodules have begun turning up on Utirik.
In 1964 the U.S. government paid $10,800 to each of the exposed 82 Rongelap islanders as compensation for the inconvenience they suffered in relocating for three years, as well as for the property they lost.
New legislation before Congress, designed to compensate the islanders for their physical injuries, would give $25,000 each to exposed victims who turned up with radiological illness and required surgery, $500,000 to Anjain and his wife of the death of their son, and $100,000 each to the atolls of Rongelap and Utirik, as well as Bikini, to build community facilities.
The bill also contains $1,000 for each of the Utirik people, who were relocated in 1954.
"Now, it is 23 years after the bomb," Anjain's account said, ". . . I know that money cannot bring back my son. It cannot give me back three years, of my life. It cannot take the poison from the coconut crabs.
"It cannot make us stop being afraid."