Chernobyl: I became a firefighter by choice
Chernobyl: I became a firefighter by choice

It’s terrible to think what the disaster at the ChNPP could result in, if it weren’t for the fire departments of the VHF-2, VHPF-6. Thanks to the work of people who were the first to appear at the epicenter of the accident, we managed to avoid the horror from the consequences. One of them is Mikhail Elubaev. Now, he’s working in the regional communal enterprise “Poltava Teploenergo”.

Mikhail Elubaev was born in Kazakhstan. But his parents moved to Ukraine. He graduated from school here, and then served in the army. In 1983, Mikhail was demobilized. So, there was a question about subsequent employment:

“…Before the army, I studied at the Kiev Mechanical and Metallurgical College. My father advised me to go to the paramilitary fire brigade. After serving a year, I could enter a fire-technical school without losing my wage. However, I decided to take a chance… I was 21 at that time. Success depended on the results of a medical examination: if I passed the medical examination, I entered. The rest just doesn’t matter,” Mikhail recalls.

Elubaev passed the medical examination successfully. And on September 1, 1983, he began to serve by contract in the fire department of Pripyat. Mikhail proudly recalls his VHPF-6. It was an independent paramilitary fire department. He worked there for eight months. So, this time was more than enough for the team to rally.

“…All guys were young, perky, cheerful and mostly 21-27 years old. Everyone came after the army. Moreover, almost everybody was a family man. Thanks to common interests such as fishing and machinery, we understood each other perfectly…”

Service in the unit went on as usual. Basically, there were regular visits to fires in the city, but not without rush jobs. A special event in the life of the Pripyat firefighters was the joint exercises with the HPV-2 firefighters responsible for the safety of the ChNPP.

“…The training went like this,” Mikhail recalls. We came to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Then, we got the scheme of the territory. Only fire hydrants were indicated on the maps. Moreover, only VPCh-2, which was responsible for the nuclear power plant, had the scheme of the station. Of course, we knew where to put the tank, how to lay or connect the pipelines. But we had no right to enter the station. This security facility was strictly guarded.”

A catastrophe that no one foresaw

None of the firefighters suspected that their knowledge and skills, honed to automatism, would soon become vital. None of the firefighters suspected that the future of millions of people would depend on their correct actions in the first hours of the accident. Friday, April 25, 1986, passed as usual in the fire department. They served the equipment, accepted and handed over the duty. The head of the SVHCH-6, Alexander Efimenko, went through all the mandatory work moments during the training. Then he said that the telephone operator took sick leave. So, a telephone operator Mikhail Elubaev performed her duties.

“… I had no premonitions,” Mikhail says. A radiotelephone operator “leads” the fire brigade, transmits information and receives calls. So, I had to leave at 2 a.m. I got less than an hour before the shift change. And at 01.26 a.m., an explosion occurred at the station. The first thing I heard then was a message from the chief of the guard: “An explosion took place at the 4-th power unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The call number is three.”

This message, like lightning, hastened the time: firefighters were ready to leave in a matter of minutes! In such cases, all thoughts were replaced by a clear charter of the fire department. It contained all necessary instructions for such situations.

Two tank trucks and one mechanical ladder went to the station from our fire department. The head of the guard, Viktor Kibenok, was riding by a ZIL-130 tanker truck. The commander of the 2nd branch, Vasily Ignatenko, took the Urals-375. And Mikhail Ilyenko got a mechanical ladder. When they left, my main task was to convey a message about the accident as soon as possible. First of all, to all the leaders who were at home at the time. Then, I had to call rural, district and non-military fire brigades and send them to the fire fighting headquarters.

After the departure of the brigade, I stayed in the unit alone. New brigades came, received the necessary instructions from me and went to the epicenter of the disaster. Only at dawn I could move away from the workplace. But I saw a terrible picture: the road was completely red behind the Yanov station, a kilometer from the SVPCH-6. There were fire trucks, which continued to arrive on call.”

Another day in Chernobyl

“… The connection was suddenly cut off that night,” Mikhail continues to recall. As it turned out later, this was an order of the KGB. We could communicate only with the help of walkie-talkies. We transmitted the message in a chain way: from a department to another one. After disconnecting that night, they introduced a barracks position. That is, we couldn’t leave the territory of our unit without a special order.

In the morning, those who had a permission returned to the unit. Mainly, they were drivers. During the extinguishing of fire, they remained in the cars. Those who were in the epicenter immediately got to the hospital. An operational headquarters appeared in our unit. It was placed in the assembly hall. Only on the second day, the chemical protection troops began measuring the level of radiation on the territory of our unit. At the VHPF-6, a few kilometers from the epicenter, its level was 1000 μR / h, with a norm of 0.15.

Subsequently, a fireguard was formed from people and equipment of the VHF-2 and the VHPF-6, not involved in extinguishing the fire. Pripyat hadn’t been evacuated yet. The city required the presence of fire brigades. A bit later, they hinted to us: if there was no need, we shouldn’t go out into the street for security reasons.

Few people understood the real danger of radiation in the first days after the disaster. One of the trips we took part after the accident evidenced this. There was a large supply of trunk pipelines and fire hoses at the VPCh-2, located near the ChNPP. Someone decided that there was an urgent need to transport them to our SVPCH-6. We worked quickly, in gas masks and chemical protection suits. But nevertheless, we swallowed enough radiation. We brought the hoses to the territory of our unit and left in the yard.

A couple of months later, at the end of the summer of 1986, we already accommodated near Ivankov. Once, having received a permission, we stopped for something at the old place. When we arrived, we saw the same hoses, because of which, we had to “grab” more than one extra X-ray in the first days of the accident. They lay in the same place where we left them. No one needed them. In addition to these hoses, a lot of equipment remained in the former part. It was already impossible to take out anything…”

After the disaster in Chernobyl

Firefighters were at the forefront of the fight against fire in the early days after the accident at the ChNPP. After that, the unit, formed from the Pripyat liquidators, moved to Chernobyl, then to Ivankov. By the end of the service, firefighters were leaving for Slavutich. Mikhail’s contract ended in September 1986. He returned home, but without completed education and specialty. Only one thing was profitable. While serving in the army, he mastered the profession of a boiler plant operator. These skills and knowledge came in handy. So, it was not difficult to pass the exam. And he got a job in Polesie heating systems. He worked there for almost five years. But then, resettlement began.

“I got to Poltava because the village where I lived after the accident was subject to mandatory resettlement. It’s noteworthy that it became clear only in the 90s. All this time we lived in Polesskoe. We were told that everything is in order: we can eat food from our garden, and in general, everything is fine. Of course, dosimetrists watered the streets and washed the roofs. But then, it turned out that our settlement is in the zone of compulsory resettlement.

Everything is littered and abandoned there now, Mikhail says. I saw a photo on the social network. In the house where I once lived with my parents, a large birch tree grew in the center of the kitchen. Although there are well-groomed courtyards, people who have refused to move live there. I understand them. In the first years, I really wanted to return to my native places. Previously, melancholy didn’t give rest. But over time, I realized that I can’t change or return anything.

Mikhail Elubaev and thousands of other liquidators of the terrible Chernobyl tragedy were scattered all over the former USSR. Memories of the catastrophe are still painful, Mikhail says. However, the mental pain has dulled a little. In 1992, Mikhail moved to Poltava, got a job as an operator of the Poltava Teploenergo boiler house. He regrets that he was lucky enough to meet with the surviving colleagues only one time. “Once I was in Kiev on business. I met the driver from our guard there. But we didn’t manage to meet anyone else from the fellow soldiers…”, the liquidator says.