General Nikolai T. Antoshkin, commander of a dangerous helicopter firefighting mission in which he and other pilots were exposed to radiation to contain the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, died on Sunday (17). He was 78 years old.
The general died of a “difficult illness,” according to a statement from the Speaker of the Russian Parliament, in which Antoshkin had been a member of the ruling party since 2014. The party’s party leader in the House said Antoshkin had been hospitalized for Covid-19.
Antoshkin was one of the leaders of the so-called liquidators, military and civilian teams hastily formed and sent to the disaster site. Boldly taking huge risks, they became heroes. Today they are admired in Russia for preventing an already terrible disaster from escalating.
Reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, north of Kiev, Ukraine, exploded on April 26, 1986, sending radiation into the atmosphere and threatening to emit much more. A fire spread through the open core of the reactor, sending out radioactive smoke.
Work on fighting the fire and cleaning up the area began in secret, but came out later. The aim was to contain as much radiation as possible on site, to prevent it from contaminating fields and causing disease across Europe. When members of a fire team who approached by land the night of the crash became seriously ill from the radiation, tactics changed and the fire began to be fought from the air with helicopters.
Antoshkin was serving in a Soviet Air Force unit in Kiev at the time. He became the pilot in command of the operation. It was not clear whether pilots could protect themselves better from radiation than ground crews. For 15 days, helicopters flew over the open core of the reactor, sending 5,000 tons of sand, clay, lead and boron to extinguish the fire and contain the radiation.
The flights exposed the pilots to contaminated smoke and radiation emanating from the reactor.
The pilots also photographed the location from the air and measured the radiation. A helicopter crashed after hitting a crane above the reactor. The materials thrown by the helicopters succeeded in extinguishing the fire. In addition to commanding the operation, Antoshkin himself flew helicopters as part of the mission and was exposed to radiation, according to RIA, the Russian news agency.
Like the coronavirus today, the radiation emitted by the plant posed an invisible and mysterious threat. His exhibit contained risks that were generally impossible to grasp at the time and which turned out to be fatal to some and trivial to others.
After the firefighting and radiation containment operations, the helicopters were so radioactive that they were abandoned at the crash site. Some were later buried. Of particular concern was the bottom of the fuselage, which had been exposed to the open core of the reactor. According to witnesses, in cases where the helicopters were abandoned in the fields, the vegetation under them turned yellow.
It was an overwhelming experience for the pilots. A total of 28 liquidators, including members of the team that fought the fire on land, died of radiation poisoning days or weeks after being exposed. The longer-term consequences for pilots in terms of cancer and other illnesses are uncertain. One of the helicopter pilots, Anatoly Grishchenko, died in 1990 from leukemia which he attributed to radiation.
But Antoshkin survived. Although he was exposed to radiation, he had a three-decade career in the Russian Air Force, then came to Parliament as a member of the ruling United Russia party, until he contracted the coronavirus at the end of last year.
According to his official biography, Antoshkin was born during World War II in a village in Bashkortostan, a region in the southern Ural Mountains. He was recruited into the armed forces at the age of 19 and later chosen to attend an aviation school. He fought in several wars in his country, including the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the border war with China in 1969 and Afghanistan in 1979, according to the biography published by the RIA.
But he won the highest honors for flights over Chernobyl, in recognition of the extraordinary risks to which he was exposed. For ordering helicopter flights over the burning reactor and for flying some of them personally, Antoshkin received the hero of the Soviet Union.
United Russia Party leader in Parliament Sergei Nevrov said on Sunday that Antoshkin had been hospitalized for Covid-19. “Our comrade died from a difficult illness,” Parliament Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said in a statement. “By putting his life in danger, he saved the lives of others”, extinguishing the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.