You See This You Die


Among my many accomplishments there is one
that I am most proud of, and that is the fact that I might have taken the most dangerous
selfie in the world. I am the man who appeared in a photograph
next to what is now called Chernobyl’s “Elephant’s Foot”. I’m the guy that set up a camera for a shot
next to a great big pile of pile nuclear fuel that contained melted concrete and metal,
a hyper-radioactive mass that was so dangerous when it formed that if you stood next to it
in minutes the cells in your body would start to hemorrhage. Stay there two minutes and you’d fall to
the floor and start throwing up, and if you hung around a minute longer within two days
you’d be dead. My name is Artur Korneyev and this is my story. So, this is me standing next to that Elephant’s
Foot and you’re probably wondering how I’m able to speak to you today given the fact
that this shouldn’t be possible. But let me start with how I got to that pile
of heated death before I tell you how I overcame it. As you all know on April 26, 1986, there was
what you might call a pretty big problem at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. At Unit 4 of that power plant technicians
had gone ahead with a safety test, which to say the least was ill-advised. The reactor was blasted apart by steam, and
what ensued was an eruption of radiation that killed many people and scarred the very planet. Some of the workers died immediately, but
what people didn’t know at the time was that many of the rescue workers and firefighters
that got close to huge amounts of radiation would die painfully and slowly. That radiation would seep into their bodies
and virtually eat them from the inside. Thousands of others would take in smaller
amounts of radiation, and just how many of them would die from radiation-related cancers
is anyone’s guess. Some of those people were the inhabitants
of the city of Pripyat where the plant was located. On the night of the disaster they gathered
together and watched in shock as a great beam of light lit up the night sky. What they didn’t know is that this thing
they were observing was potentially their murderer. It was chaos, utter chaos. Soon the clean-up job was on the way and in
all maybe half a million people were involved, risking their lives for the safety of others…and
this is where I come in, your faithful and dedicated photographer. I was sitting at home after the disaster,
having been filled in by some of my colleagues over in Ukraine about just what had happened. I had no idea as to the extent of the damage
and just how destructive it would be, but I knew that what had happened would likely
change the world forever. Nuclear reactors are not supposed to explode. How did I know any of that? Well, you might not have heard of me, but
back when I was in my mid-30s when that reactor lid blew off, in my native Kazakhstan I was
considered perhaps the most renowned radiation specialist. Not to blow my own trumpet, but let’s just
say that me and radiation have had a very long love-hate relationship. I might well have been exposed to more radiation
than anyone else on this planet, which is another of my great if not dangerous accomplishments. I knew I’d get the call…the “Mr. Korneyev,
we need your help, the Soviet Union needs your help. Comrade Korneyev, your flight has been booked
and we expect to see you today.” In a way, that call might have translated
to, “Comrade Korneyev, we are expecting you to go on a suicide mission. Say goodbye to your loved ones now because
you likely won’t see them again.” What you need to know about the blast, is
that while the fire was incredibly big and the radiation released nothing short of catastrophic,
all that merely came from about five tons of fuel. That was bad enough, but there was about 200
more tons of this highly radioactive fuel still in the bowels of the plant. If that went up the disaster would have been
beyond anything you can imagine and the fallout of that would have been bodies stacked from
Ukraine to Sweden. They wanted me to go into those bowels of
the building and determine just how much radiation was leaking. The mission was one of great importance since
the cleanup job couldn’t go ahead until they knew just how much radiation there was. I bid farewell to my family and friends and
assured them I would be back and that I would return in good health, which was a lie of
course, but crying a river of tears is not how we did things back then in Kazakhstan. I had a job to do and the safety of countless
people was my responsibility. I got on that plane and quickly downed two
straight vodkas, something back home we might refer to as taking your medicine. The place was chaotic when I arrived. Men were rushing around, traipsing through
muddy fields, sat in groups drinking vodka, hardly saying a word to each other. These were brave men, courageous souls, whose
fearlessness in the face of death was astounding. I was told I would be taking a team into what
you might call the belly of the beast. That was a steel and concrete structure they’d
built around the reactor to limit the leakage of that dangerous radiation. We called it the sarcophagus and we all knew
that any man that entered this structure might not have long to live. When I first came eye-to-eye with the thing
it was like walking up to the gates of hell. There should have been a sign over the entrance
that read, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” What we discovered inside was beyond our expectations. At first we just looked around and checked
the levels of radiation. Materials everywhere were leaking that stuff,
and sometimes we just kicked hardened fuel out of the way. As they say on TV, we don’t suggest you
try that at home. I wasn’t wrong when I compared the sarcophagus
to hell. That radioactive fuel had become so hot it
had turned into a kind of hot sludge, a lava that took with it anything in its path. Uranium, zirconium, concrete, metal, sand,
all flowed through the building and eventually burned right through the floor. It was a scene Satan himself would have been
proud of. Once that lava cooled down a bit it hardened,
and in places we saw masses of it that looked to us like waterfalls that had frozen. 11 tons of this stuff would in time pile up
in one of the corridors, and that giant mass would become what we called the Elephant’s
Foot. It would be my backdrop for the most dangerous
selfie in the world. For years I’d return to that place, despite
the dangers, and check out radiation levels. You have to remember that for a long time
after this disaster stopped filling your daily TV news channels, inside the sarcophagus was
still a very dangerous place to be. Since I first arrived at Chernobyl those first
few days after the disaster I’ve been back hundreds of times. I’ve seen the devastation and I have never
relinquished my fear of the beast. That foot you’ve seen me next to when it
was first formed gave off 10,000 roentgens an hour. That might not mean much to you, but it’s
enough to kill a man if he stood next to it for a matter of minutes. It took me some years to get near it, but
let me tell you, when I finally did it was still extremely radioactive. So, you’re now wondering just how I am still
alive and telling you the story, how a 71-year old Kazakh is still speaking when he should
have been another victim whose life was painfully ended by Acute Radiation Syndrome. Well, you could say I have just been lucky. The fact is viewers, I should be dead, but
I’m not. I don’t visit hell these days, but I’ve
probably had my fair share of radiation over the years. Even when I took a journalist down to see
the Elephant’s Foot back in 2001 that mound of malignancy was still measuring 800 roentgens
an hour. To put that into perspective for you, the
limit that is considered safe is 0.3 roentgens per week. Ok, so these days my health isn’t great,
but at least I’m alive. I’m what you might call a bit on the sickly
side and my vision isn’t what it used to be, but I’ve been to hell and back hundreds
of times and I’d go again if they hadn’t barred me. Apparently they think I might have overdone
it with the radiation exposure. The radiation is contained now, but make no
mistake, it isn’t going to disappear just yet. That Elephant’s Foot is still nice and warm,
but I don’t suggest you visit and give it a rub. Yep, things are better but that mound is still
a formidable monster. One thing I can tell you is that Soviet radiation
is the best radiation in the world. That’s one of my jokes by the way, you can
call it Kazakh dark humor. That’s a fascinating story in itself, but
we’re guessing some you haven’t heard the full story of the Chernobyl disaster. Luckily for you then that here at the Infographics
Show we’ve researched the matter a bunch of times. So have a look at one of these videos. “How I Survived Chernobyl” or “What Caused
the Catastrophic Nuclear Accident in Chernobyl?”

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