16 people who helped with the Chernobyl cleanup share their devastating first-hand accounts

Chernobyl workersSean Gallup/Getty ImagesPavel Fomin was a safety manager at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant during the time of the explosion.

April 26 will mark the 30-year anniversary of one of the world’s largest nuclear disasters — the catastrophic explosion that took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986.

More than 500,000 soldiers, firefighters, and plant workers rushed to the scene in the days and months following the explosion to contribute to the massive clean-up efforts.

Without proper protection against the radiation, many suffered immediate and severe nosebleeds, vomiting, and even collapsing. The lasting side effects from the exposure have been immense.

Getty photographer Sean Gallup had the chance to speak with a number of the workers who are still living — ahead, see their stories.

Petro Kotenko, 53

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Petro Kotenko was a maintenance worker at the Chernobyl power plant. He spent 11 months performing repairs after the accident. When he was sent into areas with high levels of radiation, he wore a lead-lined coat, work clothes, and only a cotton mask for protection. After he left the area, his heath quickly declined and continued to get worse.

Andrii Mizko, 56

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Andrii Mizko was the pilot of an MI-6 helicopter in the Soviet air force. He was sent to participate in clean-up efforts after the disaster. In total, he spent 22 days at the disaster site. He remembers spending two weeks at the hospital after, and they had to take all of his clothes because they were radioactive -- even clothes he didn't wear, but just had packed with him.

Taron Tunyan, 50

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Taron Tunyan served in the Soviet 25th Chemical Brigade and arrived at the disaster site one day after the explosion. He spent 25 days participating in the clean-up effort. According to his official discharge paper, he received a total dose of 233 millisiverts of radiation. Since then, he has suffered from headaches and blurred vision caused by high blood pressure in his head.

Alexander Malish, 59, pictured with his daughter Anya and her son Nikita

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Alexander Malish spent four and a half months at and near Chernobyl after the disaster, helping with decontamination efforts. His daughter was born with a rare genetic condition called Williams Syndrome that stunted her growth and left her with a mild heart defect. Her 10-month-old son has a more severe form of the same heart defect and is going to undergo open-heart surgery to correct it.

Vladimir Barabanov, 64

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Approximately one year after the disaster, Vladimir Barabanov spent about six months at the site. He distributed dosimeters, which measure radiation exposure, to thousands of soldiers who were working in clean-up crews. He also helped with the decontamination.

Yuriy Bondorenko, 54

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Yuriy Bondorenko's duties at the disaster site included reinforcing the shore of the nearby Pripyat River to prevent radiation from seeping into the water. He also helped remove contaminated topsoil around the reactor, and pumped concrete under the reactor's foundation to prevent the building from collapsing during the ongoing fire. In the early '90s, Bondorenko began suffering from circulatory and neurological complications and severe pains in his joints.

Pavel Lukashov, 49

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Pavel Lukashov spent four and a half months at Chernobyl and helped with the construction of the concrete sarcophagus that would eventually enclose the destroyed reactor. Today, at age 49, he has survived a stroke and a heart attack, lost most of his teeth, and suffers from cardiac problems and a weak immune system. He says most of the men he knew from Chernobyl are now dead.

Valeriy Zaytsyev, 64

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Valeriy Zaytsyev was an officer in the Soviet army when he received orders to go to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. He participated in decontamination operations for seven months. While he was there, he came down with a high fever, and after four days of the fever, blood began to pour from his mouth, nose, and ears. Since then he has lost all of his teeth, had an operation for cataracts, and survived a heart attack.

Vilia Prokopov, 76

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Vilia Prokopov arrived to the disaster site just four hours after the explosion. He says he saw the collapsed concrete outer wall of the reactor and could see the smouldering core inside. 'It was glowing like the sun,' he said to Getty photographer Sean Gallup. His first task was to release the accumulating water inside, which was likely to cause another explosion due to the heat. The radiation that he breathed in burned his throat, and he has spoken with a quiet voice ever since.

Anatoliy Koliadyn, 66

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Anatoliy Koliadyn was an engineer in and around the disaster site and arrived for his shift hours after the explosion. His first task was to prevent the fire in reactor four from reaching the adjacent reactor three. 'I thought it was going to be the last shift of my life,' he told Gallup. He has been suffering from many illnesses that he chose not to discuss. He wishes that the workers were awarded more recognition and assistance today.

Vasilii Markin, 68

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Vasilii Markin worked at Chernobyl loading and unloading the rods of uranium. He was sitting on the balcony of his apartment after his shift when he heard a loud 'thud' that was followed by an explosion that shook his building. He saw a black cloud of smoke rise over the plant into the sky, and a bluish white light shine from the inside of the building. The next day, when he arrived at work, he helped shut down reactor number one. Later he and another worker went to look for a missing colleague who was never found.

Ivan Vlasenko, 85

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Ivan Vlasenko worked in the building's decontamination showers and disposed contaminated clothing and other wastes from people working directly on the site. He now suffers from a bone marrow condition called myelodysplastic syndrome.

Pavel Fomin, 59

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Pavel Fomin was a safety manager at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. He rushed to the plant after he saw the explosion. His wife and children eventually got evacuated, but he stayed to help. According to blood tests, both of his two children were each exposed to dangerous levels of radiation before they were evacuated. His daughter's son was later born with an open stomach, but surgery saved his life. Fomin himself has developed a heart rhythm disorder and has undergone surgery for cataracts. His own son developed twisted feet and today can barely walk.

Lyudmila Vyerpovskaya, 74

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Lyudmila Vyerpovskaya worked in the construction department at the power plant. She was at a nearby village when the explosion happened. In the weeks after the accident, she helped administer the evacuation. 'It was like war had broken out and they were refugees,' Vyerpovskaya told Gallup. Later, she returned to the plant and worked on repairs and reconstruction. She says her health is still good today, despite her exposure to the radiation.

Anatoliy Gubarev, 56

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Anatoliy Gubarev was sent to Chernobyl as a fireman. He arrived two weeks after the explosion. He helped lay fire hoses inside the corridors of the burning reactor building. They were advised to never stay inside heavy areas of radiation for more than five minutes. He remembers colleagues vomiting and collapsing afterwards. Since then, he has undergone treatment for subcutaneous sarcoma, a type of cancer that led to 16 lesions on his left leg. He also had surgery for a tumour on his right kidney.

Anatoliy Lebedkin, 77

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Anatoliy Lebedkin was a demolitions expert and was drafted to the site four hours after the explosion. His duty was to blow a hole with explosives into the outer wall of the reactor so that colleagues could investigate the condition of the foundation, which they feared might collapse from the heat of the burning reactor core. He claims the KGB told him not to tell anyone, including his family, about what he saw or what he did. Decades later he finally revealed what happened.

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