Death Downwind from a Nuclear Blast

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In 1953, a 32-kiloton nuclear bomb was detonated at a Nevada test site. Within two years, some farmers and much of their livestock living downwind of the blast contracted cancer and died, most likely because of the nuclear fallout. Independent producer Claes Andreasson presents the story of that nuclear blast and the implications for those who lived near it.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The first atomic bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert 60 years ago, a test called Trinity. More tests followed. In 1953, a blast nicknamed Short Harry did not go exactly as planned. There was radioactive fallout over a large area near the site, but news broadcasts downplayed the danger.

(Soundbite of 1953 news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Word has just been received from the Atomic Energy Commission that due to a change in wind direction the residue from this morning's atomic detonation is drifting in the direction of St. George. It is suggested that everyone remain indoors for one hour or until further notice. There is no danger.

CHADWICK: Not far away, Kent Gordon was tending to the family's herd of sheep. Within a few years, he and most of the other men at the sheep camp were dead of cancer. Here's the story as told by Kent's sister, Janet Gordon.

Ms. JANET GORDON: He said that his horse had been sick. He said when he would ride down in the low washes and fresh areas where there was scrub oak that there was like a ground bog, that he could taste it--it had a metallic taste--and he could feel it on his skin. Well, within a matter of a few weeks, the horse got down. It was a young horse, a good, healthy horse, a nice horse. It got down, couldn't get up. The vet couldn't figure out anything wrong with him, and he never did--within a few days, he died.

(Soundbite of birds)

Ms. GORDON: The sheep also--many of them were sick. And it was interesting: You'd grab a hold of them, you know, like you do sheep to move around them sometimes, and their wool would just come out in big patches, and they got sores around their muzzles. And then Kent's hair began to come out in big patches. Well, he was a teen-ager, you know, and this was very alarming to him. And he went to the doctor, and the doctor had no idea what was wrong with him. He ended up giving him vitamin shots. He said, `It probably won't do any good, but it can't do any harm. And I don't know what else to do.' But it was interesting because a lot of other people in the community were having--both men and women--had their hair coming out in patches. And it tended to be people that worked out of doors. Now that spring when my brother got sick at that camp, of the eight men who were in the camp, all except two of them died with some form of cancer.

(Soundbite of birds)

Ms. GORDON: It got bigger and bigger, and he was so young and healthy except for that cancer that was eating him up, that he finally starved to death. Died from malnutrition because his food couldn't digest anymore. And painful--it was as big as a basketball. And his skin was stretched so tightly over his bones his eyes couldn't close and his mouth couldn't close. And he couldn't lay his legs out straight. And I remember lying beside him just before he died--the night before he died, propping his legs up because he was a little more comfortable than if we propped him with a pillow, praying that he could die.

(Soundbite of birds)

Ms. GORDON: The predominantly downwind population was Mormon, a population which is very accepting of authority, very patriotic, very non-questioning politically. And they figured that if they could get the acquiescence of our church leaders and officials, that there wouldn't be any question, and that's precisely what happened.

(Soundbite of birds)

CHADWICK: Janet Gordon, brought to us by independent producer Claes Andreasson, courtesy of the Hearing Voices radio project.

I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment.

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