'My husband was a swollen blister'

Published Apr 25, 2006


Kiev, Ukraine - A phone call woke Lyudmila Shashenok in the middle of the night. She was told to run immediately to the emergency room. Her husband had been injured in an accident at Chernobyl nuclear power station.

At first, Shashenok thought that it was nothing serious - her husband, Volodymyr, had told her many times that his engineering job wasn't dangerous. "In the case of an accident, we have a special button," he used to say.

But when Shashenok saw Volodymyr at the hospital she was terrified.

"It was not my husband at all, it was a swollen blister," she told The Associated Press. He was connected to a breathing apparatus, but Lyudmila, a nurse, knew the situation was hopeless.

"I told him, 'This is the end, Volodya,"' she recalled.

As Ukrainians slept on April 26, 1986 - 20 years ago on Wednesday - a reactor at the nuclear power station exploded in the world's worst nuclear accident. Within two months, 29 station workers and firefighters died.

Soviet officials praised the firefighters for their heroism, but blamed station workers for the accident. Shashenok and the other workers' wives had to cope not only with the deaths of their husbands, but also the public disgrace; even their benefits are less than those received by the firefighters' wives.

The women say their second-class status has made them rely on each other for moral support. Once a year on the anniversary of the accident, they travel as a group - filling a whole train carriage - to the Moscow cemetery where their husbands are buried in lead-encased coffins.

"I always look forward to theses trips," said Nataliya Lopatyuk, 41, whose husband, Viktor, an electrician at the station, died from radiation poisoning 22 days after the explosion. "It is an opportunity to share our memories. All of us came through this grief."

Volodymyr Shashenok died just five hours after the accident. Shashenok, who was working under the reactor, suffered severe burns from the irradiated steam and water. When Shashenok was being rushed to the hospital in the ambulance car, his co-workers told his wife that he kept repeating, "I turned off the voltage.... I did everything."

Shashenok wasn't even supposed to be at work that night. He'd begun repairs to his family's apartment the day before the accident - a Friday - and planned to spend the weekend completing the job. But he got called in on Saturday.

Shashenok was buried two days after the accident in a village cemetery near Chernobyl. Lyudmila Shashenok wasn't there. She had been evacuated from her home, and officials didn't bother to find her and tell her about the time of the ceremony.

Over a year later, Shashenok was reburied at Mitinskoye cemetery in Moscow where the first 29 victims of Chernobyl all were laid to rest in lead-shelled coffins. Concrete slabs were put over them.

Lopatyuk, 41, spent a week in Moscow at the bedside of her dying husband, Viktor.

She was 21 years old and eight months pregnant when her husband left for his shift that Saturday night and didn't return the next morning. She'd already heard rumours about the accident, and frantically began calling everywhere to find her husband. She was finally told that he had been hospitalised, but it was not dangerous - and he was being sent to Moscow for further treatment. She had 15 minutes to say goodbye.

The next time Lopatyuk saw her husband was 15 days later in the Moscow hospital, where the doctors and nurses wore special protective suits and everything in the room - including toilet bowls and washbasins - was discarded after a patient died. Viktor Lopatyuk looked better, and he tried to reassure his wife, noting that he still had his hair - better than some of his co-workers.

"I still blame myself for the hope that I gave then to myself and to his parents," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

The hope was short-lived. Within two days, Viktor had gone completely bald, with terrible burns bubbling up on his arms. "I could see his bones," she said. On May 16, he died.

Their daughter, Yulia, was born 18 days later. "He'd dreamed so much of having a daughter named Yulia," Natalya Lopatyuk said.

Yulia, 19, is often asked why her father and his co-workers didn't run from the station immediately. His co-workers, though, praise him and others for turning off a hydrogen generator several minutes after the explosion.

Her mother has taught Yulia to be proud, and said her daughter always answers: "If not them ... me, you and millions of other people would not exist."

The wives said they are still struggling to come to terms with the loss.

Lyudmila Shashenok recalled that on the apartment building where she lived in Pripyat - a town built specially for the station's workers - she would often glance at the luminous inscription: "Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier."

"I never thought the atom would kill my husband," she said. - Sapa-AP

Related Topics: