We lived in Pripyat, near the atomic power station. It’s where I was born and raised. In a big prefab apartment block, up on the fourth floor. The windows looked out on the power plant. On 26 April … Many people told me later they definitely heard the explosion. I don’t know; in our family, no one noticed it. I woke up in the morning as usual, to go to school. I heard a rumbling. Through the window, I saw a helicopter hovering over the roof of our building. ‘Blimey!’ I thought. ‘This’ll give me something to tell the kids about at school!’ How was I to know we only had two days left? Of our old life. There were two more days, our last days in the town. The town is gone now. What’s left isn’t our town any more.
Construction of Pripyat began in 1970, built to provide workers for the Chernobyl nuclear reactors and it was planned to be a model city. With around 50,000 residents in 1986, it certainly had plenty of facilities; according to Wikipedia:
Population: 49,400 before the disaster. The average age was about 26 years old. Total living space was 658,700 m2 (7,090,000 sq ft): 13,414 apartments in 160 apartment blocks, 18 halls of residence accommodating up to 7,621 single males or females, and 8 halls of residence for married or de facto couples.
Education: 75 primary schools for about 100,000 children, 19 secondary schools, 7 professional schools.
Healthcare: 1 hospital that could accommodate up to 410 patients, and 3 clinics.
Trade: 25 stores and malls; 27 cafes, cafeterias and restaurants could serve up to 5,535 customers simultaneously. 10 warehouses could hold 4,430 tons of goods.
Culture: 3 facilities: a culture palace, the Palace of Culture Energetik, a cinema and a school of arts, with 8 different societies.
Sports: 10 gyms, 3 indoor swimming-pools, 10 shooting galleries, 2 stadiums.
Recreation: 1 park, 35 playgrounds, 18,136 trees, 249,247 shrubs, 33,000 rose plants.
Industry: 4 factories with total annual turnover of 477,000,000 rubles. 3/4 nuclear power plant.
Transportation: Yanov railway station, 167 urban buses, plus the nuclear power plant car park which had 400 spaces.
Telecommunication: 2,926 local phones managed by the Pripyat Phone Company, plus 1,950 phones owned by Chernobyl power station’s administration, Jupiter plant and Department of Architecture and Urban Development.
When you visit, even in winter with the trees bare, the extensive vegetation which is reclaiming the city makes it impossible to grasp the size of the place. So we climbed to the roof of a sixteen story apartment block on a misty morning for a look.
I often dream I am walking with my son through a sunlit Pripyat, although now, of course, it is a ghost town. We are strolling along, admiring the roses. There were lots of roses in Pripyat, big flower beds full of them. It’s a dream. All that life of ours is a dream now. I was so young then. My son was little. I was in love.
The flower shop:
It happened on a Friday night. The next morning, no one had any suspicions. I sent my son to school, my husband went to the barber’s. I was making lunch. My husband came back very soon, to tell me, ‘There’s been a fire at the atomic plant. We’ve been ordered not to turn the radio off.’ I forgot to say we lived in Pripyat, near the reactor. To this day, I can see the bright, raspberry red glow. The reactor seemed lit up from inside. It was an incredible colour. Not an ordinary fire, but a kind of shining. Very pretty. If you forget all the rest, it was very pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies, there was just nothing comparable. In the evening, everyone came out on to their balconies; if they didn’t have one, they went to their friends and neighbours. We were on the eighth floor and had a great view. About three kilometres as the crow flies. People brought out their children and lifted them up. ‘Look! Don’t forget this!’ And these were people who worked at the reactor: engineers, workmen. There were even physics teachers, standing in that black dust, chatting away. Breathing it in. Admiring the sight. Some people drove dozens of kilometres or cycled to see it. We had no idea death could look so pretty.
Reactor 4 exploded at 01:23:40 on the morning of 26th April. There was no panic in Pripyat and life continued as normal until it was calculated that radiation levels were climbing so quickly that the population would be poisoned within days were they not evacuated. On the 27th, a twenty kilometre queue of buses evacuated all the residents, who were told to take enough possessions to last them three days. They were never to return.
Plans to evacuate Kiev were also prepared. Had the wind changed direction, several million people would have been impacted.
Walking around the city, you are struck by the stillness and the quiet. No birds singing, no people, just a pervading gloom with the occasional splash of colour to remind you of happier times.
We visited Pripyat three times, visiting a number of locations; so more photos to come. Meantime, for a glimpse of life in the city before the explosion, and the heroic efforts of thousands to contain the disaster, this is a good, if long, watch:
Quotes: Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich