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Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov: the reality behind the myth of three Chernobyl divers

On 14 December, the day in honor of the “liquidators of Chernobyl” is celebrated. The Ukrainian government sanctioned this on November 10, 2006 with an official decree. The date was not chosen by chance: it was December 14 when the construction of the protective “sarcophagus” that covered the exploded fourth reactor was completed. I often talk to you about the liquidators and rescuers of Chernobyl but today I want to tell you the story of 3 of them who have become legendary: Alexei Ananenko, Valeriy Bezpalov and Boris Baranov. These three men probably saved most of Europe from becoming a radioactive wasteland …

Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov: the forgotten story of the three heroes of Chernobyl

After the Chernobyl disaster, for almost 2 days, no one was warned about the radiation, because those who were “on top” were desperately trying to cover themselves: “panic is worse than radiation”.
All the liquidators fought bravely to stem the disaster but none of them were informed of the real dangers they faced, but even when these became evident they still went on.

In the previous days, Soviet military helicopters flew over the exploded reactor: below them was the graphite ‘moderator’, 2500 tons of radioactive fuel, which was on fire and if left unchecked would burn for the next three months, releasing radioactive material in the atmosphere every hour that passed. The damaged reactor was burning and sinking through the reinforced floor and was in danger of collapsing below, in the water-flooded rooms. This would then have triggered a second explosion, this time thermal, which according to physicists’ calculations would have destroyed Kiev, contaminated the water supply used by 30 million people and made Northern Ukraine uninhabitable for more than a century.

Once this threat was confirmed, thousands of helicopter rides began, dumping sandbags mostly into the exposed core. The water had to be drained as quickly as possible, but someone was needed to dive down there to open the valves manually.
So three men were called: Valeri Bezpalov, Alexei Ananenko and Boris Baranov. The three of them were selected because they knew exactly where to go and what to do. On May 6, 1986, they operated in the bubbling tanks under reactor number 4, manually opening the valves and letting the water flow out. After some time in the dive, they returned to the surface and as the legend has contunued for many years:

“At the same time all 3 men were already suffering from acute radiation poisoning and died shortly after.”

But as you can see from the first photo below, this is not the truth… I recently met Alexei Ananenko, one of the three heroes and I got to tell me the whole truth.

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Author of the article, Francesca Dani, together with Alexei Ananenko, one of the three “divers” of Chernobyl. 
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Exhibit in honor of the three liquidator heroes at the National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev.

Three men buried too many times: the truth that has been lost for decades

I wrote the above statement about their death, in quotes, because that’s probably what many of you have been hearing around for decades. But the last chapter of their story is very different: all three survived.
Baranov passed away from a heart attack in 2005 while Bezpalov and Ananenko are still alive. The plot of their story has known incredible turns and the three men have entered the legend.

I recently personally interviewed Alexei Ananenko, who detailed his life in Chernobyl and how things really went during their heroic deed.

Alexei Ananenko rightly pointed out that emptying the pool is a very normal and regular operation for a technician. “I volunteered, because I was working in that industry and I knew all the details. The water reached up to the knees. The operation itself was quick and uncomplicated.” 
The risk factor, including exposure to radioactive water, was unknown, however: no one knew how its radioactivity would change along the route that led them deeper into the corridor and thus it was impossible to predict the amount of radiation of the dose received. Together with Ananenko, Boris Baranov, the station shift supervisor, went down to the pool. The third man was Valery Bespalov. At the end of the operation, the three men checked the dosimeters (one on the chest and one on the ankle) and felt an incredible relief: the values ​​were not so shocking. “If they had been equal to dozens of X-rays I would have remembered it …”  – says Ananenko himself.

An incredible and wonderful completion of a heroic operation, of which unfortunately the true information has been manipulated in incredible ways over the decades, and therefore by reflex, these men have been “buried” too many times by the collective imagination.
Since then, the Chernobyl HBO series has spawned many myths and legends, and the episode of the three divers of the “suicide squad” is no exception.
Although the truth has remained unknown for many years, these three people were still moved by courage and altruism: but it is not death that makes heroes.

To get a complete picture of the operation carried out by the three “Chernobyl divers”, I refer you to the article “Alexei Ananenko: the hero of Chernobyl who saved millions of lives” in which you can read the entire interview that Alexei Ananenko personally granted me.

The liquidators of Chernobyl, 650,000 heroes and their race to save the world

But besides Alexei Ananenko, Boris Baranov and Valeriy Bezpalov there were many unnamed heroes during the epic battle of Chernobyl.
About 226,000 liquidators were involved in recovery operations in the 30-kilometer zone between 1986 and 1987, the hardest two years since it was during this period that the highest doses of radiation were received by the participants in the cleaning of the area.
In the works to liquidate the accident, which lasted over a period of time between 1986 and 1989, more than 650,000 liquidators were involved in the reclamation and safety measures in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Very often they ask me why I feel so connected to the Chernobyl area, the answer is not always easy to explain: when you cross the “30 km zone” you enter an immense and precious book in which the memory of the liquidators of Chernobyl and the history of that place is nothing more than the biography of these great men. In a future poised between oblivion and abandonment, the only weapon we have is to keep the memory alive.

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In the two historical archive photos above: the ABK-2 complex, where reactor 4 was located a few hours after the explosion. Many of the Chernobyl liquidators worked in this area for the safety and reclamation operations, including Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov who on May 6, 1986 went down to the rooms below the reactor.

The liquidators of Chernobyl, heroes are born from every tragedy

I am a collector of medals, badges and documents relating to the liquidators of Chernobyl, I also keep a column on this site “Chernobyl Memorabilia” and the medal I hold in my hand in the photo below is the only one in the world set up to reward people who they participated in the operations to make a nuclear plant safe after an accident or who carried out the subsequent decontamination and reclamation operations of the surrounding territories. The text in Cyrillic at the top means “Participant in the Cleanup Campaign” and the abbreviation at the bottom is the abbreviation for the “Chernobyl Nuclear Plant”. The symbol depicted is a drop of blood that is crossed by alpha, beta and gamma rays – this is the honorary badge of the Chernobyl liquidators.

… and a few meters from reactor 4 there is a monument in honor of all the liquidators which reads these words:
“To those who saved the world”

There were so many unnamed heroes during the epic “battle” of Chernobyl. These people are not to be forgotten.

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 The honorary medal of the Chernobyl liquidators.
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The monument in honor of all the liquidators.

Author: Francesca Dani

Francesca Dani is a professional freelance photographer and reporter, specializing in photography of abandoned settlements and artificial structures within the 30 km of the Chernobyl “exclusion zone”. 

Creator of the cultural information dissemination project “Chernobyl Synopsis: lights and shadows of Chernobyl”, she is a tour leader in group trips to Chernobyl, Pyramiden and the Northern lands. In parallel with these projects, she also holds school courses for middle school pupils, teaching them the basics of nuclear energy, the history of the former Soviet Union and the timeline of the events of Chernobyl, an event that forever changed the relationship between man and the “peaceful atom”.

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