Covering the Chernobyl Crisis At 1:23 in the morning of April 26, 1986, there was a disastrous chain reaction in the core of Chernobyl reactor number four. NPR's Melissa Block talks with Serge Schmemann, who was a New York Times reporter in Moscow when the accident occurred.

Covering the Chernobyl Crisis

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Twenty years ago Serge Schmemann was the Moscow Bureau Chief for The New York Times. Mikhail Gorbachev had just come to power the month before. Chernobyl was a turning point.

SERGE SCHMEMANN: People believed in their leaders until then. And here something happened that the government lied about, that showed a massive flaw in their technology, and that the government did not handle very well. So I think it was very much a defining moment for that time.

BLOCK: Is this true, that the, the regular folk in the area were, were called out to parade on Mayday just days after this event? When the elite had actually fled town, they'd gotten away?

SCHMEMANN: When you mention, you know, May 1st, it also reminds me that when we first went up there into the zone, as they called it, five years later, a little village near the reactor, Pripyat, was still completely decked out for Mayday. It had all the signs up and all the banners, and it's, by then, it was already abandoned and overgrown, but it looked like it was frozen in time on Mayday.

BLOCK: After the explosion, there was this cover-up, but there was also an effort to try to contain, as best they could, the damage that had happened.

SCHMEMANN: Well, the response developed over time and became massive. You know, in the beginning, they just had to put out a fire. There was a huge fire. The roof was burning, and this was sending tons of radioactive fallout straight up into the sky with the heat of the fire. So the original firemen, who truly are heroes, because, you know, no matter how little they knew, they knew that they were staring into a broken reactor, and they knew that it's bound to be radioactive, and they went in there and put out the fire and died. Fairly soon thereafter, they had to be reburied after they were buried in the Mytynsky Cemetery in Moscow because their gravesites were so radioactive.

BLOCK: Do you remember a moment when you realized the magnitude of what had happened at Chernobyl?

SCHMEMANN: It grew on us quite rapidly. Of course, we followed carefully what, which way the clouds and whatnot were going, so there was a very personal component, of course. We all were wondering, you know, it was a beautiful spring in Russia, and, day after day, you know, perfectly clear sky, and you're wondering, what is in this perfect spring air? This invisible, evil that is spreading perhaps through you and through your family.

BLOCK: There's been a lot of discussion over the years about the longterm effects, not just on health and science, but the political effect of what happened at Chernobyl. How farreaching do you think this explosion was?

SCHMEMANN: Certainly the word Chernobyl still resonates with every Russian, or every Ukrainian, every Belarusian. But when Russia was at a turning point, when Gorbachev had just come to power, when they were just beginning to talk about Glasnost, about openness, suddenly there's a crisis that tests all of that. And in that sense, once, you know, the public felt less constrained about talking about accidents, about horrors, about the failings of the government, everything else fell in place. I mean, people starting talking about Stalin, about the questioning Communism, so it greatly accelerated the end.

BLOCK: Coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, a visit to present-day Chernobyl and the new plan to entomb the burned-out reactor.

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