An Eyewitness to Disaster, Soviet Fireman Leonid Telyatnikov Recounts the Horror of Chernobyl

updated 10/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/05/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Soviet fire fighter Lieut. Col. Leonid Telyatnikov had been enjoying a few days off when he received a telephone call at 1:32 a.m. on the night of April 26, 1986 summoning him to a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Not knowing what to expect, Telyatnikov hopped into a car and set out immediately. "It was a clear night with lots of stars," he recalls. "I had no idea what had happened, but as I approached the plant I could see debris on fire all around, like sparklers. Then I noticed a bluish glow above the wreckage of Reactor Four and pockets of fire on surrounding buildings. It was absolutely silent and eerie."

Honored as a national hero in the Soviet Union for commanding the first fire-fighting team at the scene of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Telyatnikov was a special guest at the annual Great American Firehouse Exposition and Muster in Baltimore. A boyish 36-year-old, Telyatnikov was named an honorary battalion chief of the Baltimore Fire Department and inspected an impressive array of new hook and ladder trucks at the convention. Later he gave PEOPLE a rare eyewitness account of the nuclear accident that killed 31 people, including six firemen, and left thousands of others at risk of cancer because of the long-term effects of radiation poisoning.

Speaking softly, Telyatnikov chainsmoked as he recounted the tragedy through an interpreter. "I realized it was not an ordinary situation the moment I passed through the plant gate," he says. "There was just the noise of machines and the fire crackling. The fire fighters knew what they had to do and proceeded quietly, on the run."

Though meters measuring radiation in the plant had frozen at the highest level, Telyatnikov and his crew of 28 used only water hoses to fight the blaze and no protection other than conventional fire-fighting uniforms and gas masks. "Thoughts of my family would flash through my mind and be gone," he says. No one openly discussed the radiation risk. "The most frightening thought we all had was that we wouldn't have enough strength to hold out until reserves came and prevent the fire from getting out of control. About an hour after the fire began, a group of fire fighters with symptoms of radiation exposure were taken down from a rooftop close to the damaged reactor. When I approached five men to take up the position, they rushed to the rooftop almost before I could get the words out of my mouth."

By 3 a.m. the fires were still burning but did not pose a danger of spreading beyond the plant. "We had fulfilled our immediate task of localizing the blaze," says Telyatnikov. A half hour later he started vomiting. "I thought I was just tired from rushing around so much," he says. "I was somehow sure I wouldn't get ill because I still had things to do." By 5 a.m. reinforcements were on hand and Telyatnikov and many of his crew were ordered to go to a hospital in the nearby town of Pripyat.

"At the hospital we were walking around, talking and smoking, and at first we felt quite well," he remembers. "We didn't think of death. We thought we were just in for a checkup. But within a week we developed burns on the hands, feet and face from radiation." Six of the rooftop fire fighters, including one man whose wife had given birth to a baby girl less than a month before the accident, never recovered. "They died," Telyatnikov said at that time, "but they have not left me." Meanwhile Telyatnikov and other members of his crew were transferred to a Moscow hospital. "In a way I felt like an AIDS patient," he says. "My immune system had been weakened, so I had to be kept in a sterile unit." On May 11, Telyatnikov's 13th wedding anniversary, his wife, Larisa, was allowed to visit him briefly. But he did not see his sons, Oleg, 13, and Michael, 11, until August.

While he was undergoing treatment for the radiation, Telyatnikov's hair began to fall out in clumps; he decided to shave his head. By September his scalp was healthy again, but he soon developed liver problems and discovered he had contracted hepatitis B during his convalescence. Finally released from the hospital last December, he was awarded a medal for heroism and named deputy chief for regional fire fighters in Kiev. But his encounter with tragedy and the threat of long-term illness have left him a changed man. "Before, I was a tough guy, but now I am more emotional, more vulnerable," he says. "I spend more time with my family, and I try to pay more attention to the needs of my children. I am trying not to be too authoritarian with them."

A good soldier to the end, Telyatnikov does not fault his government's handling of the disaster, but he does criticize Chernobyl plant management, which has been blamed for negligence resulting in the explosion and fire. "Chernobyl showed us that some people are not as conscientious and upright as they should be," he says. "Otherwise the accident would not have happened." At the same time, he is modest about his own brave actions and those of his men. "We did what we had to do," he says, "and that is all."

From Our Partners