September 29, 2017

Crossing Over Into the Zone of Alienation

I'd been through other border crossings before.

Before landing at Boryspil International Airport outside of Kyiv, Ukraine, I'd previously landed in London, Dublin, Budapest, St. Thomas, Frankfurt, Casablanca, Paris, Tunis, Havana, and Amsterdam.

I'd driven from Buffalo, New York to Toronto, Ontario. I'd even walked from San Ysidro, California to Tijuana, Mexico (and back).

But there's been nothing that quite compares to crossing into the Exclusion Zone of the Chernobyl disaster site.

Technically, it's not just one zone, but two—the 10-km "core" and the 30-km buffer zone that surrounds it.

Transitioning from the Ukrainian countryside of folk villages to the "Zone of Alienation" is like crossing over into some purgatory...

...where life is similar to that which you've known in the not-too-distant past, but the electricity is out and the water is poison.

Although Chernobyl is not entirely devoid of people—there are the hoteliers and restauranteurs and the scientists studying the effects of radioactivity—the town is somewhat of a time capsule of Communist-era Ukraine as it was in 1986, under Soviet rule.

The dogs there are the descendants of the original pets that Moscow ordered the evacuated townspeople to leave behind—at least, the ones that managed to escape their government-ordered eradication. Most of them bear an identification tag on one ear to identify them if they happen to wander out of the Zone.

There are some newborns, however, who've managed to avoid capture and haven't yet been tagged. Considering how much I cuddled one puppy in particular, I'm hoping it hasn't had much chance to pick up much radioactive material, too.

My heart was just breaking at every turn in the entire Exclusion Zone—but especially Chernobyl.

"I have too much empathy," I told one of my fellow travelers. Our visit was hitting me hard. I was at a loss for any other words to describe the impact that just being there—in person—was having on me. The weight of it was almost too much to bear.

With all the memorials erected in memory of those who were lost in the accident or immediately following it—including one from 2006, immediately in front of the "contained" Reactor Number 4—there was a funerary solemnness to the monumental pilgrimage we were making.

We needed to see those dogs, just like we needed to see the fox in Pripyat—not only as a welcome injection of joy but also as a reminder of the life that thrives in the face of tragedy. And we needed to pet them, too, radiation be damned.

Of course, we weren't supposed to touch anything in the 10-km zone, closest to the site of the blast—we even signed a form saying that we wouldn't. But being deprived of our sense of touch had a way of making it seem like we were floating through the town, like souls trapped between this world and the next.

And that's actually not far from what actually happens once you're in the Exclusion Zone, since it does take some effort to get back out. The checkpoints shut down at 7 p.m. (which also happens to be the earliest you can get any alcohol to drink in town).

One of the hotels locks its doors at 9 p.m. so nobody gets in, and nobody gets out. The other hotel doesn't enforce a lockdown, but visitors are discouraged from walking the streets after dark—and, without streetlights, those streets get really dark.

So, if you want to make an after-hours visit to the "Star Wormwood" statue to contemplate the blowing of the third trumpet of the end times, you've got to do it without a flashlight. Even the locals and local workers have got to be tucked inside their homes by 10 p.m.

On the one night we stayed in Chernobyl, a group of us attempted to walk silently in the dark, past curfew, to hang out at the statue of Lenin. It's a bit of an oddity, since Communist monuments were outlawed in 2015 and officials have claimed that all the Lenin statues have been removed—at least in the western region of the country—as part of an anti-Soviet movement to "de-communize" Ukraine.

Starting in 1990, Ukrainian nationalists have found ways to topple Lenin (or knock his head off his block) in a phenomenon that became known as "Leninfall" (Ленінопад). Yet this guy still stands—despite reports to the contrary by The Independent, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other reputable media outlets that unfortunately just parroted the Ukrainian president's statement of them all being gone, without independently verifying it.

But we only got to see this phantom Lenin—a Lenin that isn't supposed to exist—during daylight, as we were quickly spotted by police on patrol and practically escorted back to our hotel under the pitch black veil of this weird parallel universe, where we felt like the lone survivors in a world that perhaps had already ended.

Of course, the world did end for the people who lived in those 40 towns that, after being evacuated, just... ceased to exist. There were so many more than just Chernobyl and Pripyat.

Some people even came back—either to illegally live off the grid (the so-called "self-settlers") or to provide services in support of the burgeoning tourism in the area.

The remote location and the abject poverty that's arisen after getting out from under Russia's fascist thumb don't make living there easy, of course. But It's quiet there. It's a simple life.

And, to them, it's home—and they've got it all to themselves.

I've never experienced such anxiety while on vacation before, not even while traveling to other countries where I didn't speak the language. Throughout my time in Ukraine—especially in the Exclusion Zone—I was a bundle of nerves, and all those nerves were frayed.

I was in a constant state of threat assessment.

It was foreign and fearsome—and, quite frankly, while I was there, I couldn't wait to get home. I couldn't figure out why I'd gone in the first place.

But as soon as I got out of that little isolated island community of the post-apocalypse, I had a sinking feeling, one that's only gotten stronger the longer it's been and the farther I've gotten away from it: I have to go back.

Maybe I was never supposed to leave.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Nuclear Reactions On the Periphery of Disaster
Meet Simon, The Red Fox of the Radioactive Red Forest
Stepping Around Graves
Aren't We All LOST?

September 26, 2017

Photo Essay: Nuclear Reactions On the Periphery of Disaster

When I signed up to go visit the Chernobyl disaster site, I was imagining the photos of the ghost towns I'd seen—or, what turned out to be the ghost town of Chernobyl, Pripyat.

I didn't really think much about the actual reactor that blew up. It didn't occur to me that we would be able to get very close to it or inside the power plant at all.

I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. And I was not prepared mentally for what I was to experience while at Chernobyl.

And it's true, you can't go into the actual explosion site. It was quickly covered with a concrete "sarcophagus" after the accident to contain the molten and highly radioactive remains of the blast—a lethal combination of uranium, zirconium, graphite, and concrete that created perhaps the deadliest substance in the world, corium.

When that sarcophagus began to crumble and compromise the quarantine of the amalgam at the core—which had solidified into a shape dubbed "The Elephant's Foot"—several countries around the world pitched in to fund a brand-new safety containment structure.

That one, which was completed last November, covers up most of what was left to see of the rubble. It's expected to last 100 years.

Thankfully, the accident of April 26, 1986 was isolated to just one reactor, Number 4. Reactors 1-3 still worked and were more or less untouched functionally by the accident—though Number 1 had already experienced a meltdown of its own back in 1982 (something that wasn't disclosed publicly until several years later).

The first three reactors were shut down in the wake of the disaster, but only temporarily.

In fact, Reactor 1 continued to operate through 1996. Reactor 2 only shut down in 1991 after it caught fire. And Reactor 3, the final straw for the electricity-producing capacity of the plant, didn't shut down until the year 2000.

By 2015, the State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine had ordered all three of those reactors to be officially decommissioned—typically a slow, bureaucratic process to complete.

That is to say, don't hold your breath.

But those weren't the only reactors at the Chernobyl Atomic Plant (Чорнобильська атомна електростанція).

Construction had begun on two others, Numbers 5 and 6.

And though it was never completed, there's enough of Reactor 5 to walk through and get a pretty clear sense of what Number 4 must've been like before a star called "Wormwood" (чернобыль) poisoned the waters (if you believe in conspiracies and prophecies and such).

Thank goodness we had a nuclear physicist in our group.

Our first stop was to the cooling tower of Reactor 5...

...which was so radioactive that we had to limit our meandering to the interior periphery of the hyperboloid-shaped structure.

Most cooling towers for nuclear power plants use water or steam to give off excess (or "waste") heat that's not needed in the process of producing power.

And when you've got a reactor that's designed to generate up to 1000 megawatts, you can bet it's going to get pretty hot.

After the conflagration at Reactor 4, however, its successors—both 5 and 6—were doomed to a state of arrested development, Number 5 having been halted at only 70% complete.

They have not, however, been stabilized into a state of arrested decay.

As quickly as things can fall apart when their completed versions have been abandoned suddenly...

...the abandonment of anything that was never finished leaves it particularly vulnerable.

And that which is left unfinished is even more susceptible to vandalism and the encroachment of the elements.

As the surrounding wilderness advances and consumes them, and various forms of life make their recovery (some, at a snail's pace)...

...there's a limited opportunity to witness firsthand anything that's recognizable beyond just being a radioactive ruin.

Some of the floors never got their final layer of concrete poured over their reinforcements.

Rebar is rusting and buckling. Rivets are popping out. Catwalks are wobbling. Elevator shafts are ravenous for fallen legs and dropped wallets and phones.

Standing water is collecting, stagnant, and surely irradiated.

What went up is stuck up there, and it's not coming down without a fight.

And when it does come down, it will do so spectacularly, in a cascade of red oxidation and regret.

And yet for now, it still stands there in the shadow of the newly-contained Reactor 4, which is doing its best to not only keep everything in, but also keep everybody out.

Some workers have been assigned to tend The Elephant's Foot, but their shifts last mere minutes.

Initially, the liquidators (a.k.a. the clean-up crew) could only spend a maximum of a minute or two in there—and, even then, many of them perished from radiation illness.

More than 31 years later, the maximum duration that anyone can stand inside Reactor 4 is just double what it was back then.

But since no reactions ever actually occurred inside Number 5, visitors can take their time exploring the relic.

That is, as long as they avoid the radioactive hotspots caused by the fallout, as it was in such close proximity to the epicenter of the disaster, just a mile and a half away (or so, as the crow flies).

Not only that, but every step must be watched. This place is a death trap—yet another disaster waiting to occur.

If I'd been alone, I probably wouldn't have gone in. But since I was with a group, I didn't really have the option of staying behind.

But now, I can't unsee those sights. I can't unthink those thoughts. I can't put my broken heart back together, as it shattered into increasingly tiny fragments every time I visited someplace new in the surrounding area.

And even though I've been back to LA for over a week, I can't shake the feeling that I had throughout my time in the Exclusion Zone.

I wish it would wear off. But I'm not sure that it should.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Abandoned Hospital Where Radiation Illness Fills The Air
Photo Essay: The Secret Soviet Radar Base Powered By Chernobyl
Photo Essay: Boeing Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab, Declassified & Decontaminating
History in the Making

September 25, 2017

Standing With Those Who Choose To Not Stand

[Last updated 11/25/22 4:24 PM PT with added newspaper clipping]

Well, it's happened: I've lived long enough to see history repeat itself.

And while I don't normally pay much attention to the happenings on the sidelines of most professional sports games and teams, the recent #TakeaKnee controversy has an awfully familiar ring to it.

Back in the winter of 1993, a few months before I was to graduate from Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York, I found myself standing in the hallway of a TV studio located just off of New York City's Times Square. A producer was rounding up a busload of us kids, who'd braved the interstate snow to appear on national television.

"All those who are for the Pledge of Allegiance, stand over here, and all those who are against the Pledge of Allegiance stand over here," she said, splitting us into two opposing factions across the hall from one another.

I stood my ground. "Well, it's not a matter of for or against," I complained, as my classmates shuffled into their respective queues.

"Just pick one," another crew member wearing a headset barked, and so I got in the "against" line.

I, of course, had been dutifully reciting the pledge for as long as I could remember. I hadn't formulated any opinions against it because I was just robotically following the lead of the voice that had been coming across the school loudspeaker for years on end.

Until, one day, it didn't. And I noticed.

And that's how Henninger High School ended up getting its own episode of the popular 1990s daytime talk show The Montel Williams Show—and how I ended up not only on air, but on stage.

During the class year of 1992-3, I'd taken up the baton of "teen reporter" for the local Syracuse city newspaper, The Herald-Jounal, after my older sister had vacated the position upon graduating a year ahead of me. Most of the articles were pretty mundane—covering some football win or school play or awards ceremony—but I decided to investigate why the loudspeaker had gone silent in the morning.

And I cracked open quite a case—enough to elevate my story from the high school column all the way up to the news desk, enough for the news editor to call the school office and pull me out of class to do some additional reporting, and enough for the article to land on the front page of the Sunday paper, .

The headline read:


And that juicy bit of news was enough to catapult the story into the national spotlight via the Associated Press.

Papers all over the country read about what had been happening in our small city classrooms. According to our Principal Peter Kavanagh, the article said, "It became very, very divisive between kids who stand for the pledge and those who don't... The African-American kids perceive it as a philosophical issue."

The Ithaca Journal, Ithaca, NY (1/18/93) Clipped from

And there it was, in black and white.

That is, the white kids in school were largely, the ones who did stand to recite the Pledge, as well as those who called out the less privileged students who didn't for literally getting a "free lunch" while at school.

Teachers had begun to complain to the administration about the tensions they were witnessing, which were getting pretty heated—and, not knowing what else to do, our principal tried to defuse the racial debate by removing the catalyst altogether.

To some, I was a hero for writing that article. To others, I was a troublemaker and a traitor. Life was already pretty hard for me both in school and at home—and, that January, it got even harder.

And that's when the calls from talk shows began to pour in. Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Montel Williams... they were all clamoring to put us on their respective shows.

Of course, I threw my journalistic integrity out the window and dove head-first into the political debate, arguing about the meaning of free speech and reminding those who were in an uproar that saying the Pledge of Allegiance may be a privilege, but it's not a requirement or an obligation.

Both the Supreme Court and the New York State education law of the time agreed on that—and they still do.

And while the First Amendment covers the right to speak freely—including to voice criticism of the government—it also covers the right to not speak, whether it's in protest or just because you don't feel like it. (And, thanks to the Fifth Amendment, you don't even have to incriminate yourself.)

Like the kneeling of professional athletes during the National Anthem, the big issue with the Pledge of the Allegiance wasn't so much the utterance of those particular words in that particular order, but the sitting as opposed to standing.

"Probably 70 percent of the kids just stand and talk to their neighbor when it's said in school," the article quoted Andrew Messer, commander of the neighborhood's American Legion Post, as saying at the time. "It's the same thing you see when they play the National Anthem at any ballpark. It's unfortunate, but that's how people think these days."

Well, 1993 turns out to be a lot like 2017.

Backstage at the TV studio, I caught an early glimpse at what was to become the "shock" programming of talk shows with controversial subjects and attention-grabbing guests—something we'd started to see with The Morton Downey, Jr. Show in the late '80s and The Maury Povich Show in the early '90s, but that wouldn't come to full fruition until The Jerry Springer Show would have a few more years under its belt.

In the battle of "for" versus "against" the Pledge of Allegiance on The Montel Williams Show [Ed 6/18/20—on an episode they titled "The Pledge of Allegiance Is Not For Me," S3 E25, which aired 2/4/93] the producers had split the guests on the stage into two sections—one that was starkly white, and one that was deceptively black.

In truth, no one in the audience on the "for" side was black. But there were non-minority students on the "against" side—they just hadn't been put on the stage.

And one of them was me.

When our class president at the time had been placed on the stage and looked around her—clearly picking up on the narrative that was about to emerge, based on color palette alone—she pointed to me in the audience section and declared that I needed to get up on the stage.

And, from that point forth, I was no longer objective.

Up there, cameras rolling, I pleaded with my fellow classmates in the audience and across the other side of the stage—as well as with the viewers at home—to understand that this was not the way to instill a sense of patriotism in today's youth. And, considering how much the rest of us always mumbled our way through the Pledge, just saying it every day did not make us patriots.

In fact, I said, I didn't even know anything about the history of the Pledge of Allegiance or its intended meaning until I read a sidebar that ran alongside the article I wrote for the city paper. (According to that, the word "God" wasn't added until 1953, and students used to give a military salute to the flag, rather than putting their right hands over their hearts.)

For me, I love singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I just love the song—as a piece of music. It's not like any of us born in the 1970s or later know a thing about "the rocket's red glare" or "the bombs bursting in air." We're lucky to have been spared those things.

But if someone wants to respectfully and quietly kneel down during the performance of our national anthem to make a statement, that seems quintessentially American to me.

Let's exercise our right to protest! And let's make it count—let's make our actions shine a light on the injustices and the discriminations of our country.

Don't stand up, take your hat off, and then drunkenly blather on about this or that while spilling beer on the row in front of you.

But if you do, that's your right, too.

In both cases, not everybody has to like it. We can disagree with each other's choices. We can even engage in spirited debate to try to understand the other side and make them understand our side.

And then move on. Because whether you stand, sit, or kneel doesn't really matter. What is absolutely essential is what you do when the music stops playing.

Related Posts:
A Missed Calling
Singing for My Survival

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