Saturday, September 23, 2017

Photo Essay: The Abandoned Hospital Where Radiation Illness Fills The Air

It doesn't make a lot of sense.

Of the Chernobyl workers who didn't immediately die in the blast, those who fell severely ill from radiation illness were sent for treatment at the Pripyat hospital...

...which, itself, was under a cloud of contamination.

Maybe there was no time to ship them to Moscow?

But certainly any of the workers on the scene—as well as the first responders and the subsequent so-called "liquidators" (or clean-up crew)—couldn't have improved much under those conditions, just a couple of miles from the site of the original explosion.

It's no wonder that this is one of the most radioactive spots still today—31 years later—in Pripyat.

It's no wonder why it's technically illegal to enter.

They say that spending a day in the Exclusion Zone of the Chernobyl disaster site is perfectly safe, dosing you with less radiation than what you would've gotten on the flight over.

But that's a spin on reality, based on averages.

That doesn't account for the firemen's helmets and other protective gear that's been left discarded at the hospital...

...their original owners having likely perished from exposure to the fallout.

In fact, there are piles of bandages there that are so radioactive—whose Geiger counter readings are so off the charts—that you probably shouldn't even walk past them.

Sure, you won't receive a fatal dose anywhere anymore—probably—but if you stood on certain hotspots for, say, an hour, you could lose your fertility.

"This is where shit gets real," our tour guide said.

This was also the only point of interest where we were given respirator masks—pretty flimsy ones, at that—though I don't really know what it was that we would've been breathing in otherwise.

There was, indeed, a lot of particulate matter in the air, causing me to sneeze for days on end. Dust? Paint chips? Irradiated detritus? Who knows.

Since I've been in a few abandoned hospitals in my day, I tried not to think about the germs...

...or the radiation...

...or the death.

I looked for signs of life.

But at every turn, all I could see was devastation.

I couldn't imagine newborn babies swaddled in the nursery before April 26, 1986.

All I could think about was what happened in that hospital afterwards...

...when the music stopped playing...

...and human life, too vulnerable to nuclear contamination, began to give way to those organisms that actually could survive the apocalypse.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Hallowed Halls of Pripyat's Primary School, Evacuated
Photo Essay: Linda Vista Community Hospital, Abandoned, Exterior
Photo Essay: Last Chance Look at Linda Vista Hospital (Roof, Boiler Room, Kitchen & More)
Dancers Descend Upon the Semi-Vacant Crenshaw Hospital
Photo Essay: A Vacant Hospital's Frightening Admissions

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Meet Simon, The Red Fox of the Radioactive Red Forest

"Is he tame?"

I'd just gotten back from my trip to Ukraine, and I was excited to tell my friends about the red fox I'd seen in the ghost town of Pripyat.

After all the adventures I'd had, they were probably most excited to hear about this one.

But when one of them asked if the fox was tame, my only response was: "Well, it depends on what you consider 'tame.'"

Of course, Simon—a.k.a. Semyon or Семён—is a wild fox. He's no one's pet.

But he's acclimated enough to the presence of tourists and tour operators to come running when we arrive...

...and eat right out of our hands.

Of course, upon meeting Simon, I couldn't help but recall The Fox who tells The Little Prince that he cannot play because he is "not tamed."

But what would it mean to tame The Fox? "To establish ties," he says.

"To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world." 
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Given the all-too-brief amount of time we had in Pripyat, I didn't have the chance to tame Simon the fox, nor did he have the chance to tame me.

To him, I'm nothing more than a tourist who's like 100,000 other tourists. And I know that maybe there is someone out there who has tamed him—at least, in the sense meant by The Fox in The Little Prince.

But to me, there is only one Simon Fox of Pripyat, that handsome, ginger fella who doesn't care much for trail mix but has learned to love the castoffs of protein bars and sandwich makings tossed his way by those who are just passing through.

And he is magnificent.

Related Posts:
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Be Gentle
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Photo Essay: The Hallowed Halls of Pripyat's Primary School, Evacuated

There are those who call the ghost town of Pripyat, just outside the Chernobyl Power Complex, the "Disneyland of Urban Exploration."

And it's true that the set itinerary that the local guides take you on include all the usual suspects—the amusement park, the hospital, and the school.

Some even call into question the validity of the relics that appear to have left behind, suggesting that tour operators have trucked in the dolls and the piles of books—if not to amplify the impact of the scene that's supposedly "frozen in time," then at least to replace any of the items that might have been collected as souvenirs by urban explorers.

But you can't fake the partial collapse of the primary school in Pripyat.

The Soviet-era murals haven't been placed there as a period-appropriate set dressing.

And you can't deny that thousands of children were pulled from their classrooms to be evacuated...

...many having been placed—at least temporarily—in orphanages in other towns, separated from their parents.

It was absolutely critical, after all, to first protect the very young and the very old—as both would be most susceptible to radiation illness from the Chernobyl fallout.

Some kids thought their parents were never coming back for them.

Some parents never did.

And while the government instructed everyone to leave everything behind in an orderly manner...

...for the "short-term" evacuation...

...the teachers, schoolchildren, and parents of Pripyat were never allowed to return.

Not even to collect their belongings.

So, what you find in the primary school—or any of the other schools in Pripyat, of which there are middle and secondary schools as well as a kindergarten—may or may not be what was actually left behind in 1986.

But back then, the paint that's on the walls now wasn't peeling.

The yellow-colored, kaolin clay bricks of Soviet-era Kievan Russia weren't yet exposed.

And you can bet that the hallways and stairwells were markedly absent of the crunching sound that deafens visitors as they tiptoe through the post-apocalyptic school, now 31 years later.

Walking through the school nowadays can be disorienting, as all the sets of stairs start to look the same...

...and you can lose track of what floor you're on.

You might be able to distinguish a library from a science lab, but there are books and papers of various sorts strewn everywhere.

The only real way to orient yourself among all the skeletal chair frames and wall-mounted lesson plans is by looking out the windows...

...and triangulating your location based on the collapsed section...

...and the trees with 30 years' worth of growth just outside, sprouting up through the porch and serving as better landmarks than pretty much anything else.

It's true that by visiting these sites, we "dark tourists" are changing them. But seeing them firsthand—visiting them in person, and following in those tiny footsteps—is the only way for us to really understand what happened.

After all, we weren't there. We weren't even really paying attention.

On April 27, 1986—when the youngest residents of Pripyat were forced to leave behind the amusement park that had just opened—the #1 song in the U.S. was "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer.

We were more worried about the threat of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya than of the Soviet Union, after decades of tension in the Cold War had begun to lift, at least a little.

In the U.S., we've had the luxury of distance from Chernobyl. We're separated from it—and probably protected—by the Arctic Circle, something the Duga radar couldn't even quite penetrate.

The nuclear fallout didn't blow over our skies, as it did over Sweden and France (despite their denials of such events).

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't care... or that we shouldn't educate ourselves about it, even three decades later.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Train Graveyard of The Exclusion Zone
Photo Essay: The Secret Soviet Radar Base Powered By Chernobyl
Photo Essay: Amusement Park, Shuttered By Nuclear Fallout
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Satisfyingly Spooked for the Year