April 26, 1986. Saturday, in the early hours of the morning. Andrei Gluckhov, nuclear safety specialist, is woken up by a distant explosion. He rubs his eyelids and looks at his bedside table alarm clock. It’s half past one. Beside him, his wife is still soundly asleep. Yawning, Gluckhov rolls on his side, wondering whether Chernobyl power plant experienced another minor explosion – which is common – or it merely were a dream he was having. Soon enough, he went back to sleep.
On the next morning, he called his colleagues at the plant: even though he was off this Saturday, the dreamy explosion Andrei recalled did worry him a bit. It was his job, after all, to make sure Chernobyl nuclear operations went smoothly and – most importantly – safely. But his concerns were confirmed when the person at the phone asked him to go at his window and check the plant’s situation.
Andrei walked to his window, his heart beating fast. He lived in a fifth-floor flat in the town of Pripyat, a city constructed from scratch to accomodate Chernobyl employees back in 1970 – an ‘atom town’. The nuclear plant was located some 20 kilometers southwest, but Andrei had no difficulty spotting it. First, because it was his daily task to keep it safe; second, since a big cloud of smoke was hovering over Chernobyl, following two critical explosions that occured in the early morning. Andrei had not dreamt.
From his balcony, Andrei Gluckov’s heart sank. What was going to happen now? He looked at the surroundings of Pripyat and then, at the city itself. Fifteen years following its creation, it just looked like any medium-sized but relatively prosperous city. The population averaged 50,000, and lots of facilities contributed to its inhabitants’ well-being: about a hundred schools, a hospital, two stadiums, three swimming pools, thirty-five playgrounds were located on the site to cater for everyone’s needs. An amusement park was to open anytime near the atom town’s center. But apart from regular Chernobyl employees that had an idea about what was going on, most Pripyat residents would ignore it until the next day’s afternoon.
On Sunday, April 27, there was indeed something in the air – including highly-lethal levels of radiation that Soviet authorities, who run the plant located in Ukraine, took several hours to notice. Buses were hurried to Pripyat to prepare an immediate evacuation. At the time, about fifty Pripyat citizens had been already transferred to the local hospital and two deaths had been reported…
At 2 p.m., a general announcement was made to the residents of Pripyat who would eventually take full measure of what was going on.
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev region.
And so the evacuation started, a day and a half after the accident. Andrei boarded one of the buses put at the residents’ disposal heading south to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital city. But he left his wife and children halfway and came back to the power plant so as to help the emergency procedures. By the time he was back, most of the townspeople were already gone. This hasty evacuation, in the course of which Pripyat residents were asked just to carry along ‘vital personal belongings’, would give Pripyat this eerie, just-deserted looks that would make his later fame.
Although authorities had reassured concerned residents eager to come back to Pripyat, stating that the evacuation measures and the ‘exclusion zone’ would only last for a few days’ time, Pripyat was kept desert for years. The radiation levels have only started to drop over the past years, making it possible for extreme visitors – wearing special equiment – to take a glimpse of this abandoned, fascinating city whose clocks all indicate five to midday, as it was the time the electricity was shut off.
Andrei Gluckhov would work at the power plant for three more years, while the area grew more deserted and wild-looking than ever. Despite the fact that trees had turned red, animals wandered back in the nearby forests, and nature reclaimed its rights within the city. Former apartment blocks are crumbling into pieces, green sprouts have shot through the schools’ soil, and the amusement park, never to be opened, is covered in rust. But more than a spooky touristic spot for thrill-seekers, Pripyat is a symbol, a radioactive witness and victim of the atom era, a warning that abandonment and desertion await what mankind can’t keep under control.
- Foer, D. Thuras, E. Morton, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, Hachette, 2016.