On April 26, 1986, there was a nuclear accident in Chernobyl, USSR (now Ukraine).
And I remember where I was when I heard the news: I was on a school outing to Mesa Verde National Park. Our group from Rowland Hall – St. Mark’s School was camping in the Morefield Campground, and I happened to hear the news at the little convenience store, where I was buying a bottle of juice. I was there with one of the chaperones of the trip, Court Richards, and we discussed the impact on the way back to our campsite:
- How many people in the area would die?
- How much would the fallout affect the USSR and Eastern Europe?
- Would the fallout make it to the United States?
- Would it affect us?
It was a lot to fathom for a seventh grader – the confusion of puberty is enough for a kid who wasn’t quite 13 years old, and adding the weight of a nuclear accident was a lot to process. We’d all lived in the era of MAD theory, with Reagan and Gorbachev having their fingers on the nuclear weapons trigger, in a seemingly-endless standoff. The previous year, we’d seen the famine in Ethiopia, with images that haunted our sleep for months.
And now, 350 miles from home, we were hearing about something quite scary.
So we talked, as a group, around the campfire that night. The two adult chaperones, the high school “semi-chaperone” who was a ski racer like me, and 15-or-so seventh and eighth graders who were asking all the questions and sharing their fears – and hopes – with the group.
I guess this is probably my first “JFK moment” – one of those times in history where you’ll remember exactly where you were when you heard the news. And it’s still sad to look at it today: the photos of the abandoned towns and structures still make me get a little choked up, thinking of how many people either died immediately, or were killed by radiation poisoning in subsequent months and years. And I think of those who have moved back, against all suggestions from authorities, defiantly reclaiming their homes and land, regardless of the risk.
“It was 20 years ago today…”