In the history of the Chernobyl disaster, there are numerous tales of heroism and resilience. One such story is that of Petro Khmel, a firefighter who braved the blazing inferno at Chernobyl’s Reactor 4. Petro Khmel’s harrowing experience in the heart of the Chernobyl fire highlights the courage and determination of the first responders. Join us as we delve into the remarkable account of Petro Khmel’s survival amidst the chaos and devastation.
A Journey into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Petro Khmel, one of the firefighters from the Chernobyl Power Plant Firefighting Unit-2, was among the first responders deployed to extinguish the fire at Reactor 4 in 1986. Today, Petro Khmel visits the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone straight from the Chernobyl Hospital, where he is undergoing treatment. With a sense of purpose, Petro reflects on the events of 1986, ensuring that everything they did was not in vain.
The Fateful Night Thirty-seven years ago
Petro Khmel served as the head of the first shift, responsible for protecting the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. On April 26, while preparing for his work shift, Petro noticed a bright red glow from the balcony of his home. Initially, he assumed it was a group of welders gathered near the fifth reactor, that was under construction at that time. However, Yuriy Hilko knocked on his door shortly after, delivering the chilling news: “There’s a fire at the nuclear plant!”
Battling the Blaze
Heading towards the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Petro witnessed an enormous candle-like flame in the sky and a mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke. As a firefighter, his duty was to prevent the fire from spreading to the third block. With little understanding of the impending danger, Petro and his team fought the fire, unaware of the graphite and concrete fragments emitting deadly radiation. Despite the reassurances that the fire posed no risk to their lives and health, Petro later realized the severity of the situation.
Confronting the Aftermath
Around 4:30 am, Petro’s colleagues began feeling sick and nauseous. They descended from the rooftop, leaving Petro behind. Petro’s father came to his rescue, but Petro lost consciousness. When he regained his senses, Volodymyr Pravyk stood before him. It never crossed Petro’s mind that the symptoms he experienced could be related to radiation exposure. An hour later, a doctor instructed them to gather their belongings and descend. They were then transported to Boryspil and later flew to Moscow, unaware of their radiation exposure levels.
The Toll of Tragedy
Petro Khmel learned about the deaths of his fellow firefighters from a newspaper given to him by a doctor before his discharge. Overwhelmed with grief, Petro recalls how the doctor offered words of encouragement, assuring him that they would fight and survive. However, the physical toll on Petro was evident as his hair and eyebrows fell out, leaving a haunting reminder of the radiation’s impact. Petro, like many others, wished to live, but the reality was that the radiation had forever changed their lives.
Return to the Chernobyl Zone
After 37 years, Petro Khmel revisits his former unit, VChP-2, now relocated to Chornobyl city. Immersed in nostalgia, Petro reminisces about the dispatch room, the garages housing the fire engines, his office, and the rest area.
Surprisingly, he discovers that some of the equipment and uniforms from their time are still preserved as a reminder of their heroic efforts. Walking through the area, Petro can’t help but feel a mix of emotions—nostalgia for the camaraderie and shared experiences, but also a sense of sadness for the lives lost and the long-lasting impact of the disaster.
Lessons Learned and Advocacy
In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, Petro Khmel became an advocate for the rights and well-being of the Chernobyl liquidators—the thousands of individuals involved in the clean-up efforts. He dedicated his life to raising awareness about the long-term effects of radiation exposure and fighting for the rights and healthcare of those affected. Petro’s advocacy work included speaking at conferences, engaging with government officials, and supporting organizations that provide assistance to Chernobyl survivors.
Legacy and Hope
Petro Khmel’s survival in the depths of the Chernobyl fire serves as a testament to the resilience and courage of the first responders who faced unimaginable danger. Petro’s story, along with the stories of countless others, ensures that the legacy of Chernobyl remains alive and serves as a reminder of the devastating consequences of nuclear disasters. Despite the hardships and loss, Petro’s unwavering determination to fight for justice and support his fellow survivors offers hope for a better future.
Petro Khmel’s survival in the midst of the Chernobyl fire is a tale of bravery and resilience that continues to inspire and captivate. His journey through the heart of the disaster, the physical and emotional toll he endured, and his subsequent advocacy work highlight the human spirit’s capacity to endure and overcome even the most dire circumstances. Petro’s story serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by the first responders and the ongoing importance of acknowledging and supporting the survivors of the Chernobyl disaster.
Since you’re here…
Contamination Zone is a group of people who are united by our love for the Chernobyl Zone. We are a non-profit organisation and every year we raise thousands of euros for good causes in the Chernobyl Zone, such as firefighting equipment, monument restoration, animal welfare and more.
If you are planning or thinking about a trip to the zone, please check out our trips to Ukraine in 2023 and if you still have unanswered questions, feel free to get in touch!