The explosion that occurred at Chornobyl on April 26th, 1986, killed thousands by spreading radioactive material across Eastern Europe. Worse still, children born in the surrounding areas of the power plant have health defects even today. As with the more recent disaster in Japan, there is a deadly radioactive exclusion zone in this region, utterly devoid of human life.
The widespread and long-term impacts of Chornobyl mean people sometimes forget the efforts of brave emergency workers in the explosion's aftermath. Of the first responders who attempted to extinguish the blaze, 134 firefighters and power station workers received radiation poisoning. Twenty-eight of them passed away in the weeks following the tragedy, while a further 14 died in later years from cancer caused by radioactive exposure.
One individual killed by the deadly radiation was 25-year-old Vasily Ignatenko, a family man and paramilitary firefighter. When he set out to tackle the fire with his colleagues early that morning, he had no idea of the severity of the situation.
He certainly did not expect this mission to claim any lives. The story of his sudden deterioration shows how dangerous nuclear incidents can be. When you learn about his personal life before the explosion, you will also understand the heartbreaking human impact. Yet, the selfless actions of Vasily Ignatenko probably saved many other lives.
Who Was Vasily Ignatenko?
Born on March 13th, 1961, in the Gomel region of modern-day Belarus, Vasily was one of five children in the Ignatenko family ― a hardworking Soviet family. Though Vasily immensely enjoyed playing sports in his youth, he eventually studied electrical engineering, hoping to become an electrician. After graduating in 1978, he worked as an electrician in a factory for two years until the Soviet military conscripted him.
When he joined in 1980, his first position was with the fire department in Moscow. It was in these early years when Vasily Ignatenko learned the tricks of the firefighting trade. He was also able to exercise his passion for sports by competing in "fire-specific sports."
At that time in the Soviet Union, different brigades competed in activities specific to firefighting, such as climbing, running with ladders, and putting out mock fires. Ignatenko was a valuable team member in these competitions.
After a two-year stay in Moscow, Vasily Ignatenko returned to Belarus in August 1982. One of his neighbors was employed at the Chornobyl power plant, so Vasily tried to find work in the town of Pripyat.
This town is close to where Ignatenko grew up, though nowadays, it is within the borders of Ukraine (just south of Belarus). He was hired and soon moved into a fire-station apartment in Pripyat.
The Pripyat settlement was built a few kilometers from Chornobyl, primarily for power plant workers and their families. Just before evacuation, it was home to nearly 50,000 residents.
He was set for a four-year tenure as a firefighter. In Pripyat, Vasily continued his hobby of firefighting sports and gained a reputation among his colleagues.
For his day-to-day work, Vasily Ignatenko was awarded the rank of Senior Sergeant. Shortly after arriving in his new home, he met his future wife Lyudmilla at a party. The pair officially got married in September 1983, so Vasily seemed to be living a good life.
The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant
There are a few catastrophes in recent human history that remind us of the deadly nature of nuclear power. Japan suffered the effects of two nuclear bombs in World War 2 when hundreds of thousands of civilians died.
In 2011, Japan was again struck by nuclear tragedy when the Fukushima power plant exploded and displaced thousands from their homes. On European soil, the Chornobyl disaster is unmatched in this regard.
The first nuclear reactor of this facility became operational in 1977, and with its town of Pripyat, it was supposed to be a shining example of the Soviet Union's nuclear future. The reactors at this plant had an unconventional design, though.
All nuclear reactors use control rods to slow the reaction rate of nuclear material and reduce the temperature. Of course, this heat is what produces steam to generate electricity. Typically, control rods are entirely made from boron which slows down the reaction. In the Chornobyl plant, the tips of the control rods were made from graphite which actually sped reactions up. This particular feature was unknown to the chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov.
How The Explosion Unfolded
The 4th reactor in the power plant was undergoing tests to see if the backup generators worked in case of a power cut. Accounts of how the disaster occurred vary.
Dyatlov claims that everything was under control but that the complex design of the reactor was bound to fail. Officials blamed Dyatlov and his coworkers for negligence. Safety measures could indeed have been tighter, but in hindsight, some view the testing as unnecessary altogether.
In the early hours of April 26th, 1986, engineers lowered the control rods into the reactor to reduce its power output. To their horror, the opposite happened, and nobody knew why. The reaction quickly got out of control, and a steam explosion blew the reactor open. The blast was so powerful that the debris crashed through the ceiling. This exposed the sky to radioactive material.
The main fire was from burning graphite in the reactor. Other smaller breakouts occurred on the roof and lawn of the facility because the explosion spread fragments from the reactor.
Help Arrived Quickly
Vasily Ignatenko's fire brigade was called to respond at around 2:30 in the morning. When they completed the short drive to Chornobyl, Ignatenko climbed onto the roof to tackle the fires on top of the 3rd reactor and ventilator. Five of his colleagues joined him to put out the smaller blazes near reactor 4. All six were breathing in radioactive smoke from these fires and being poisoned.
They made rapid progress at fighting the inferno but started to feel the effects of the radiation and began vomiting. They made their way down the ladder with help from more firefighters but struggled even to stand up. Vasily Ignatenko was transported to the Pripyat hospital at 4 am.
The main fire in the reactor was not extinguished for another couple of weeks, though the first responders' actions helped control the situation.
Vasily Ignatenko Fell Seriously Ill
Despite initially going to the hospital in Pripyat, the severity of the Chornobyl situation meant that firefighters and plant workers needed specialist care. Vasily Ignatenko was transported to Kyiv and then flown to Moscow to receive treatment.
Once there, doctors hoped to deliver a bone marrow transplant to increase his white blood cells. The radiation had seriously impacted his immune system. Vasily's older sister provided her bone marrow, and although the procedure went well, Vasily's health continued to deteriorate. His hair was falling out, and his organs were shutting down.
Vasily Ignatenko's wife Lyudmilla had to witness his rapid decline. She was pregnant with their daughter in this period and went against the orders of doctors by remaining close to Vasily. She did this out of love, though their daughter died hours after birth.
Some have argued that Lyudmilla's radiation exposure may have contributed to the baby's birth defects. However, others dismiss this theory, stating that the poisoned firefighters emitted no radiation themselves.
Less than three weeks after responding to the fire at Chornobyl, Ignatenko was pronounced dead on May 13th, 1986.
How Is Vasily Ignatenko Remembered?
Two days after his passing, Vasily Ignatenko was buried in a Moscow cemetery. Other seriously ill Chornobyl firefighters, who subsequently died, joined him in this final resting place. They were given reinforced coffins since authorities were concerned that they were still radioactive after death.
Vasily was given the Soviet Order of the Red Banner soon after death, as were his fallen colleagues. This was one of the Soviet Union's most prestigious civilian honors.
Streets in Minsk (the capital of Belarus) have since been named after him. A monument in honor of Ignatenko was installed in his home town too.
Vasily Ignatenko became better-known to Western audiences in 2019 when HBO released a series about the Chornobyl disaster and its aftermath. The story of Ignatenko and his wife is a central feature of this program.