May 23, 1986. Almost a month passed after the tragic events at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The destroyed reactor of the fourth power unit of the nuclear power plant had not yet had time to cool completely, they had barely buried the first victims of the accident, the country was still groaning from the consequences of the disaster. And again, on the night of May 23, a fire signal suddenly arrives at the control tower. There was an ignition at the fourth power unit….
A fire inspector-engineer Alexander Gudkov could not fall asleep for a long time that night. All day he took business with colleagues leaving the Chernobyl zone, whose shift ended. At the first moment, the danger signal seems to him a mystical coincidence, after which he deeply believed that thoughts would materialize. Just a day before, while at the station, he drew attention to the block in which the fire equipment was located – the staircases and tanks left from the fire extinguishing on the night of the tragedy, April 26.
A thought flashed through his head about how terrible the night of the disaster was, and how unbearably difficult it was for his colleagues to work then. After a day, he would remember his feelings. The night call on May 23 made him shudder at the thought that he himself had prophesied trouble, because, as you know, a shell does not fall into the same funnel twice.
Again, on alert, the duty fireguard was sent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, in Moscow, everything was being done at the personal request of the Secretary General of the CPSU Central Committee M. Gorbachev so that this information did not leak. The incident about the second fire at the 4th power unit, which happened a month later, was totally classified. What caused a new fire? Why did the world learn about his circumstances only after 16 years?
Experts put a second fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant next to the first due to the danger of consequences, because a nuclear reactor was located nearby, filled with nuclear fuel at the edge, which was about 180 tons of enriched uranium.
At 02:30 a.m., the head of the operational-tactical department of the Main Fire Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR, Vladimir Maksimchuk, arrives at the destroyed fourth power unit. Due to the leg injured under the debris of the graphite rods, it is noticeably lame. The leg was swollen and required an urgent operation: because of a sore leg, he walks not in protective boots, but in ordinary sneakers.
Search for a fire at Chernobyl NPP
There is no information about the specific location of the fire and the extent of the fire. At about 3 a.m., Maksimchuk decides to conduct reconnaissance with two units of fire brigades through the neighboring, undestructed, third nuclear power unit. The search for fires took place in pitch darkness under the influence of strong radiation. Why the alarm was recorded by fire-fighting equipment is a mystery bordering on mysticism against the background of an electronic clock and lights that stopped working at the same time.
…A month earlier, it was extremely dangerous to approach the fourth power unit – this guaranteed a painful death. The place of the explosion was completely open and spewed millions of curies, x-rays, sievert, and other physical quantities of radiation onto the planet’s surface. If no measures had been taken and graphite had been allowed to burn out in the crucible of the exploded reactor, then 100 days later the entire globe would have been encircled by radiation.
Maksimchuk perfectly understood the possible consequences of a new catastrophe, and therefore the two fire brigade units, moving towards each other through the destroyed reactor, groped trying to determine the re-ignition zone. He personally headed one link; the head of the other was an experienced engineer-inspector of the State Fire Department of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs Alexander Gudkov.
Every step of the firefighters was a new portion of radiation and the risk of death. It took almost half an hour to find the fire – in pitch darkness, under the radioactive debris, fire brigades were approaching the source of ignition. Both groups almost simultaneously discovered a real fiery hell in one of the tunnels: boxes with cables were burning.
They were not just glowing at the time of the discovery of the box, they were so hot that an explosive situation could occur at any second. There was practically no time to make a decision. Maksimchuk, clearly realizing the consequences for his actions, took full responsibility and took a balanced decision – to remove all people from the bloc. The catastrophic outcome of the first explosions had been already known, the tragic experience of radiation and the painful death of colleagues were behind the firefighters.
Maksimchuk understood the degree of negativity from his decision, and the burden of responsibility that he took upon himself in those minutes. He relied on life, not death. The management, having learned about the decision of Maksimchuk, was furious. According to the combat charter of the fire service of those years, such a decision was comparable to the unauthorized refusal to comply with the command order. According to the charter, it was assumed that combat forces should be built up in a fire before full fire extinguishing.
But Maksimchuk was ready for the consequences – he was not afraid of dismissal from service or the prospect of imprisonment against the backdrop of the death of people, before the threat of a catastrophe, the consequences of which no one in the world could have predicted then. After removing unnecessary people from the unit, the lieutenant colonel decides to extinguish the fire with links of only 5 people each, who will be in the danger zone for no more than 10 minutes and advance to the place of fire inside the armored personnel carriers – his armor reduced the radiation level by almost 10 times.
Only volunteers walked in the first five of the reconnaissance fire brigade, under the leadership of Alexander Gudkov, they had to determine how to extinguish the fire that arose due to the ignition of boxes with electric cables. Each breath of firefighters might be the last. Boxes were located at high altitude, which was difficult to reach – firefighters lost precious minutes.
A secret fire: firefighters against fire and radiation
They manage to open several boxes and begin to localize the fire with difficulty, but time flies inexorably, and the safe 10 minutes ended. Fire brigades from Kiev had not yet arrived, and 30 firemen on duty at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, replacing each other, did everything to prevent the fire from spreading. As nuclear scientists say, people gradually began to fade, the first signs of radiation sickness began to appear.
Firefighters practically had no protective equipment. Most often, the fire had to be extinguished in ordinary building robes. Only a petal mask was issued to protect against radiation of the upper respiratory tract, i.e. a cotton-gauze respirator is a useful thing in everyday life, in production, where you have to work with dust, but it is absolutely useless when it comes to radiation protection.
It was possible to localize the fire by 2.30 p.m., fire brigades arrived from Kiev and Ivankov replaced the almost exhausted Chernobyl firefighters. The lieutenant colonel Maksimchuk, having received an exorbitant dose of radiation, continued to lead the elimination of the fire until the last minute. He, who lost consciousness, was taken to the medical unit, after he was able to report to the leadership about the complete localization of the fire.
No one spread about the fire on May 23, fulfilling the personal request of Secretary General M. Gorbachev. The reasons for its occurrence were also classified. Later, experts gave them an assessment.
The essence of the ignition of the electric cable was that it was made of flammable material, besides having the property of spreading fire, like butter pouring into a fire. By the way, later, experts will name most of the materials used in the construction of nuclear plants – a time bomb.
For example, polystyrene, from which the insulation of the roofs of the reactor building was made, is a highly flammable material, like a fire wave spreading everywhere, it is almost impossible to extinguish it until it burns itself. The sheath of an electric cable made of polyethylene is also a highly flammable material that emits a choking gas.
It tends to spread when ignited on all cracks, while instantly spreading fire. If you add to all this 200 tons of engine oil and liquefied hydrogen, it becomes clear why the designs of the nuclear plants looked like a time bomb.
Almost all firefighters who extinguished the second fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on May 23, 1986, received large doses of radiation exposure. However, they were given false diagnoses because of the secrecy of the fire. Unconscious Vladimir Maksimchuk, as well as Alexander Gudkov, and other firefighters, who received doses of almost 700 X-rays, were diagnosed with vegetovascular dystonia.
The fire itself, on May 23, 1986, which lasted 12 hours, was not taken into account in any protocol, denoting it merely as the “Cable Illumination Act”. The Soviet government did not want to once again excite the world community with another Chernobyl accident.
After decades, drawing conclusions from what happened in Chernobyl, we must not forget the main thing – man has not become the king of nature. We are only a unique biological species that has appeared in the vastness of the universe, as a result of complex biological evolution.
And most likely, we have no brothers in mind. Therefore, we hold the fate of the planet only in our hands. And our common future depends on how we do it right, from the point of view of its environmental safety.