From the charred remains of the fourth nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the Soviet Union is beginning to extract its heroes.

As the death toll -- now said to be 13 -- mounts, and the Soviet public comes to terms with the possible long-term effects of the disaster, emphasis is being put on those who sacrificed their lives and affirmed what is described here as the communist ideal.

Today, the youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda put the spotlight on Viktor Kibenok. He is the 23-year-old firefighter who was among the first to reach the fourth reactor as it burned in the early morning of April 26. Fifteen days later, he was dead, the victim of an overdose of radiation.

According to visiting American doctor Robert P. Gale, Kibenok is one of 13 people who have died as a result of the accident.

In interviews with U.S. television networks today before his departure for Los Angeles, Gale, who performed 19 bone marrow transplants on radiation victims here, said that 24 of the 35 persons exposed to heavy doses of radiation remain alive. Earlier this week, Gale said 28 had survived.

Gale also told CBS Morning News that he and his medical team had agreed with the Soviets that "a very large number of patients, perhaps upwards of 100,000 individuals," would have to be monitored for "the risk of cancer and other complications" probably "for the rest of their lifetime."

The article in Komsomolskaya Pravda, accompanied by a picture of a young man with dark hair and boyish face, gives Kibenok the full hero treatment. It describes his family -- he was a third generation firefighter, his character -- he was kind and brave, and his attributes as a leader in the local komsomol, or Young Communist League.

"I do not like high-flown words," the newspaper quoted the head of the Soviet fire fighting organization as saying. "But what the fire fighters did [at Chernobyl] was a feat. We should talk about it, so that everyone knows that there are such remarkable people among us."

The search for heroism at Chernobyl comes as the Soviet public gradually gets a more complete picture of the tragedy and its possible consequences.

Recent information in the press, as well as a somber speech this week by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has confirmed to most people that Chernobyl was more than an industrial accident.

In the early days after it was announced in a brief report on television, many Soviets dismissed the threat, just as the official media dismissed precautions taken by foreigners as "provocative" acts in an anti-Soviet campaign.

Since then, the reporting from Chernobyl and from Kiev, 80 miles south, has become more realistic. Television tonight showed medical checks, said to have been conducted on more than 100,000 people.

Today one newspaper described how the sale of milk and green vegetables is still forbidden in Kiev's 22 markets and that all products, including flowers, are being checked for radiation before going on sale.

While Soviet readers are continually told that western accounts of the accident are grossly and deliberately exaggerated, the information in their own press is still worrying.

As the dimensions of the Chernobyl accident become greater in the public mind, the press here has turned more and more to battlefield analogies.

Yesterday the official news agency Tass compared the work at the reactor to the front lines in a battle. Describing the people now working at the reactor, Tass said, "Here is their front . . . here they have lost their comrades, here they will stay to the end -- to victory."

The tone, and the treatment, is similar to coverage of Soviet heroes fighting in the Afghan war. In fact, today's Red Star, the armed forces newspaper, noted that most of the helicopter pilots involved in the cleanup efforts at Chernobyl had also flown in Afghanistan in the fight against the rebels.

Today's article in Komsomolskaya Pravda gave one of the strongest indications that the danger at Chernobyl was not the fire but the radiation. "But the flame that they had not yet controlled was not the most frightening enemy," the article said. "That was another, invisible to the eye, insidious -- radiation."

But mostly the piece extolled the bravery of Kibenok, and 27 other firefighters who fought the fire at the Chernobyl reactor from the first alarm -- shortly before 2 a.m. on April 26 -- until it was extinguished at 5 a.m.

Kibenok had arrived five minutes after the first alarm. Another firefighter on holiday arrived in a shortsleeved shirt to help his comrades.

According to an account given by Leonid Telyatnikov, "one of the few who later could explain what happened," Kibenok held out until the end, even after others could no longer stand up. "He held on, standing on the most dangerous spot -- above the reactor."

The enormous flames, the smoke and the melting bitumen are all described here, as they have been in other accounts of the events of April 26.

"[The firefighters] did everything they could. They held out for several hours . . . they suffered the first effects and they bore up under them. They fulfilled their duty to the end," the article said.

And in the same breath, it noted, "Of the 28 firefighters, the majority were Communists."