MILLIONS of viewers have been captivated by the horrifying scenes in Sky Atlantic drama Chernobyl.
But perhaps the most chilling aspect of the five-parter, which concludes tonight, is that the real thing was too distressing for TV.
Series creator Craig Mazin says there was no need to exaggerate the events of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine – real life was devastating enough. He says: “What is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need anything extra.
“Believe it or not, this is the RESTRAINED version of what actually happened there, because there are some accounts where it gets even worse. But there’s no question it took an enormous number of lives, and shortened an enormous number of lives – particularly children.”
The joint Sky, HBO and Sister Pictures series, which stars Emily Watson, Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard, has already been hailed as “the greatest drama of all time” and credited with bringing to life a secretive period in Soviet history.
Bosses in charge of the nuclear reactor tried for years to play down the severity of the explosion and subsequent radiation poisoning.
Although officials put the death toll at 28, with a further 15 caused indirectly, other estimates run into the tens of thousands.
Craig and his team went into painstaking detail to recreate the disaster and its haunting aftermath, including these key scenes.
THE first episode opens with the explosion at the reactor and is followed by panic as workers tried to control the resulting fire.
These early scenes capture the real-life disaster, which was the result of a safety test carried out by an inexperienced and inadequately prepared crew of night shift workers.
Senior engineer Leonid Toptunov (played by Robert Emms), who had only been in the job for four months, was given the critical task of managing the control rods inside the reactor core.
Deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) made a series of reckless decisions which pushed the reactor to extremes. He was widely blamed for the disaster.
The TV crew filmed at Chernobyl’s twin reactor, the decommissioned Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, to ensure further authenticity, and the Unit 4 control room is faithfully recreated, including the dials on the walls and the white coats and caps worn by the operators.
CASUALTIES ARRIVE AT HOSPITAL
WITHIN four minutes of the explosion, the first firefighters arrived at the reactor. Eventually, around 50 trucks were on the scene but crews were told to expect nothing more than a simple roof fire and did not wear any protection from radiation.
When they were taken to hospital, they still did not entirely realise the danger they had been in. The scene in which the firefighters are calmly playing cards at hospital actually happened.
Many of the medical staff were also unaware of the threat of radiation burns and treated them with milk, as seen on the series, because it had been drummed into them that the nuclear reactor was completely safe.
However, some switched-on medical staff did realise the peril they were all in, and immediately stripped the firefighters and threw their uniforms into the basement. Chillingly, the uniforms are still, to this day, where they landed. They have never been moved or incinerated, as nobody dares touch them.
TO put out the fire, brave helicopter pilots flew over the accident site to drop loads of lead, boron and sand on the reactor as it belched radiation.
Recreating this scene in the Sky Atlantic drama, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and government bureaucrat Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) watch in silent horror as one of the helicopters gets too close to the radiation, crashes into a crane and falls out of the sky.
The crash happened many months later than depicted in the series but creator Craig says he wanted to include it early on to show viewers the horror the pilots would have been faced with when dealing with the open reactor.
There were many hundreds of flights over the reactor following the initial explosion and often the helicopter doors had to be opened so that people aboard could “dump stuff over the side” in an attempt to contain the radiation permeating from the plant.
DIVERS GO INTO THE REACTOR
ONE heartbreaking scene in the second episode shows men volunteering to go inside the reactor, in full diving gear, to help avert another disaster in the flooded basement of the reactor.
There was a significant risk that melting uranium would eventually burn through the concrete floor of the core and instantly vaporise 7,000 cubic metres of water stored in the safety tanks below.
This would have created a thermal explosion large enough to destroy the remaining three reactors at the Chernobyl plant and render much of Eastern Europe a radioactive wasteland that would be uninhabitable for at least a century.
Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov were the three real volunteers who successfully navigated the radioactive waters in the basement and opened the gates with hours to spare. Two of these three unsung heroes are, amazingly, still alive. The other died of a heart attack in 2005.
BRIDGE OF DEATH
HOURS after the explosion, some Pripyat residents gathered on the railway bridge just outside the city in order to get a better view of the colourful fire. Children are seen dancing in the poison dust deposits that were being blown through the air, as if it were snow.
This has been written about in accounts of the time. Of the people who watched from the bridge, it has been reported that none survived.
Some dismiss the Bridge of Death as an urban myth.
TUNNEL DUG UNDER REACTOR
TO stop uranium from penetrating the ground water, reaching the Black Sea and spreading fatal contamination throughout Europe, 400 miners were tasked with digging a tunnel underneath the melting reactor to create space for a heat exchanger.
The scenes depicting miners risking their lives in fatally toxic conditions beggar belief but are totally true.
They worked around the clock for a month in temperatures exceeding 50C and without ventilation. It was so hot, they worked naked apart from hats and boots.
One in four miners died before the age of 40.
The heat exchanger was never installed as the fuel cooled on its own, meaning the miners had toiled for nothing.
The camaraderie depicted on the show was true to life. One miner has said: “Perhaps it’s a sin to say so but it was a wonderful time.
“I didn’t want to leave that place. That was the way we related to one another.”
DOGS ARE SHOT DEAD
HUNDREDS of thousands of liquidators were employed to “cleanse” the exclusion zone around the reactor. Their tasks included bulldozing villages, hosing down streets and shooting animals because they feared they would spread contamination.
Residents being evacuated from Pripyat were ordered to leave pets behind. One scene shows a dog running after a bus and scrambling to get on to reach its owners. It is another accurate account of the heartbreaking aftermath.
One dog was locked in a house with a note pinned to the door, reading: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”
Writer Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, a collection of people’s memories of the disaster, quotes a sniper as saying: “This little poodle began scrabbling about. It climbed out. Nobody had any cartridges left. Nothing to finish it off with. Not a single cartridge. They shoved it back into the pit and covered it all up with earth. Still feel sorry for it.”
90 SECONDS TO CLEAR ROOF
A TENSE scene from episode four shows volunteers being sent to the roof to clear the radioactive debris in the weeks and months after the explosion. Because of the huge risk of contamination, volunteers in protective clothing and gas masks were allowed to spend only 90 seconds each on the roof to remove as much debris as possible – some blocks weighed 40kg and 50kg – and throw them back into the core. It would than be covered with concrete and steel.
Commander Nikolai Tarakanov (Ralph Ineson) tells volunteers: “Climb the stairs, then take your breath. You will need to, for what is ahead. These are the most important 90 seconds of your lives.”
As in the show, robots had initially been tried to remove the debris but the radiation destroyed their circuitry.
It was left to 3,828 volunteers to spend the summer of 1986 removing the debris by hand. Many spent more than 90 seconds on the roof and many went up more than once.
LYUDMILLA LOSES HER BABY
MOST of the characters in Chernobyl are based on real people, including Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), the wife of fireman Vasily (Adam Nagaitis). Devastating scenes show pregnant Lyudmilla going against medical advice not to touch Vasily as he lies dying in hospital.
Lyudmilla was told by doctors: “If you start crying, I’ll kick you out. No hugging or kissing. You have half an hour.”
She has said since: “We remembered the wedding, our home. He tried to joke, he told funny stories – just to make me smile. We supported each other. It was true love, because I never experienced such a feeling.”
He died a fortnight later and was buried in a zinc coffin. Lyudmilla lost her baby.
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