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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006, 05:44 GMT
Chernobyl voices: Anatoly Rasskazov

As Ukraine marks the 20th anniversary of the completion of the sarcophagus encasing the ruined reactor at Chernobyl, we publish the story of the first man to photograph the wreckage - on 26 April 1986, the morning after the disaster.

Anatoly Ivanovich Rasskazov

Anatoly Rasskazov, 66
Former photographer and artist at Chernobyl nuclear power station

It was a weekend. Everyone was relaxing, or preparing for the 1 May parade, when the power station was meant to receive the Order of Lenin and become a Hero of Socialist Labour.

There were rumours of a minor accident at the station, but I cleaned the windows of our flat in Pripyat as usual. Then at about 9am I was summoned urgently to the station.

No-one believed that something so awful could occur.

I went down into the bunker where the authorities were working, and I understood that they did not really know whether the active zone of the reactor was destroyed or not. They wanted pictures taken from above to see what had really happened.

In the helicopter, there were two soldiers and two civilians from Atomenergo, who had flown down from Moscow. There was so much ash flying around, it was impossible to take photographs through the glass. I said, "Comrades, we have to open the window." They protested, saying it would contaminate the helicopter. They knew what it was, the material rising up from the reactor.

But the window was opened. I leaned out with my camera, a wide-format Kiev-6, and a soldier held my legs to stop me falling. Then I doubled up with a Zenit.

Graphite blocks

When we returned I reported to the station director, Viktor Petrovich Bryukhanov, and he said, "Good, now do it from the ground."

Anatoly Ivanovich Rasskazov's picture
The reactor's glow was obscured when the picture was shown on TV
I set off on foot with a radiation safety official and a dosimetrist. One of them shook his head. "Oi-oi-oi, we'll receive such a dose," he said. So we got into one of the fire engines left on the territory of the station and started it up. There was no room on the road, so we drove along the railway, bumping over the sleepers.

There were some graphite blocks lying on the ground near the third reactor. I jumped out and photographed them with the Zenit, leaving the other camera in the cabin. Then we drove up to within 50 metres of the ruins of fourth reactor. I took 12 pictures with each camera, and we returned the same way as we arrived, praying to God that the engine would keep going.

I develop the first film, from the Zenit, and it is black, completely burnt out by radiation - probably from the graphite block. I think, "That's it. It's all over." But the second film, from the other camera was successful, only slightly clouded. When I got to the station the First Department [security] took the prints, numbered them and took the films. "Everything you saw and heard - keep your mouth locked!" they said. From the photographs it was clear that the active zone was badly damaged. Until May, no-one else was allowed to take pictures.

Radiation burn

When I returned home at midnight, I was vomiting. I was all red. I had a sore on my forehead which has remained unhealed for 20 years. A radiation burn. And my whole throat was burning, because I had been inhaling this soup of radionuclides.

Anatoly Ivanovich Rasskazov
Mr Rasskazov in action at the plant
Later, my job was to photograph the building of the sarcophagus. I took pictures from three sides of the reactor, and twice a week from above, in a military helicopter. This allowed the authorities to see how the sarcophagus was being built. September was the peak period, when the sarcophagus was nearing completion. In October I already began to feel bad. I went to work and an ambulance took me from there to hospital.

They wrote down that I had received an emergency dose, more than 25 roentgens. In January I was taken to the 6th clinic, in Moscow. There a doctor told me, "Anatoly Ivanovich, you do not count as a case of radiation sickness - to qualify for radiation sickness you need to have been working on the night shift." So I got no special benefits. But I have had lots of illnesses, including blood diseases and cancer. My health is ruined.

To begin with they did not publish my pictures. In May they showed one on central television, but it was one taken from the ground so the scale of the destruction was not visible. Later they showed one of the pictures taken from above, but they touched it up so that the ray of light emanating like a burning sun from the reactor, along with the smoke, ash and other flakes of material, was not visible.

Long afterwards they were published in a book called Chernobyl Reportage, but my name did not appear.

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