Midnight in Chernobyl: Helicopter heroes

Suggested reading for 9/11, in which I hope we remember those who ran towards the stricken towers rather than following instinct and running away: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster Kindle Edition, by Adam Higginbotham. This follows my general rule that the only good popular books on science and engineering are written by British authors, who tend to assume that their audience is actually capable of comprehending some of the technical and scientific points.

The heroism in the book is inspiring. I was partway through this book when a scheduled flight to Upstate New York came up. There was a 40-knot headwind which would, I knew, combine with the mountains and hills to form turbulence. The FAA had issued a warning for moderate turbulence below 10,000′. The trip was a favor to friends who wanted to look at an antique wooden boat for sale. I thought about wimping out on two hours of bumps, but then said “If the Soviet firefighters and nuclear plant ran toward Chernobyl Reactor 4 rather than away, I can handle a bit of discomfort.”

A lot of the workers in the plant behaved heroically, trying to resupply what they thought was left of the exploded reactor with cooling water. They knew that they were going to receive lethal doses of radiation, but they strove to reach manual valves and controls in hopes of saving fellow citizens. About 60 of these men died within a month (Wikipedia).

Although there was no shortage of heroes following this explosion, I had never realized the heroic actions of Soviet helicopter crews. They flew directly into the worst of the radioactive cloud to drop, by hand, bags of boron-containing sand, straight down into the ruined core. “Historians estimate that about 600 Soviet pilots risked dangerous levels of radiation to fly the thousands of flights needed to cover reactor No. 4 in this attempt to seal off radiation.” (Wikipedia, which also notes that the efforts might not have yielded significant results; as with coronaplague, when the guy running the helicopter operation was told that it was futile, he said “we have to be seen to be doing something”)

From chernobylgallery.com:

It is a good book. I haven’t seen the HBO series. What do folks think of it?

Circling back to 9/11, the New Yorker ran a good article on Rick Rescorla, who went into the World Trade Center to get people out.


  • the cause of the accident (Chernobyl Gallery)
  • “How HBO Got It Wrong On Chernobyl” (Forbes): 2 immediate, non-radiation deaths; 29 early fatalities from radiation (ARS) within 4 months from radiation, burns and smoke inhalation, 19 late adult fatalities presumably from radiation over the next 20 years, although this number is within the normal incidence of cancer mortality in this group, which is about 1% per year, and 9 late child fatalities resulting in thyroid cancer, presumably from radiation.
  • Wikipedia: There is consensus that a total of approximately 30 men died from immediate blast trauma and acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in the seconds to months after the disaster, respectively, with 60 in total in the decades hence, inclusive of later radiation induced cancer.[2][3][4] However, there is considerable debate concerning the accurate number of projected deaths due to the disaster’s long-term health effects; long-term death estimates range from up to 4,000 (per the 2005 and 2006 conclusions of a joint consortium of the United Nations) for the most exposed people of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, to 16,000 in total for all those exposed on the entire continent of Europe, with figures as high as 60,000 when including the relatively minor effects around the globe

13 thoughts on “Midnight in Chernobyl: Helicopter heroes

  1. Check out Svetlana Alexievich’s book on Chernobyl. She is one of the great writers on the planet. In fact you could check out any of her books — though I don’t recall that any of the others have anything to do with helicopters.

  2. > I haven’t seen the HBO series. What do folks think of it?

    It’s a well-made show, but it has a thick layer of fear-mongering and anti-nuclear propaganda. Interpretation of events is rather liberal, so it shouldn’t be assumed to be historically, or even visually accurate.

  3. I recommend the HBO series as well as to listen to the podcast for each episode that features the producer, Craig Mazin. It is hosted by Peter Sagel the host to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” Craig seems pretty transparent about what was accurate and what was not.

    I also recommend this video about Three Mile Island, (https://youtu.be/1xQeXOz0Ncs) It was given at developer conference. It is less than 40 minutes. I think that the way this fellow analyzed the Three Mile Island incident is similar to the way you have written about some flying accidents.

  4. The HBO series is immersive and intense, but depressing and scary. From an engineering point of view, its fascinating to watch as the root cause is discovered: an unlikely chain of improbable events, and complex transient interactions that several individuals had partial knowledge of, but no one person ever put together before the accident.

    • I discovered that it can take 1-5 years to sell a vintage wooden boat! They look great on a trailer in a climate-controlled warehouse. The asking price of the 1930s Chris Craft was $45,000 and the offer from our friends was $35,000 and it was rejected.

  5. That piece in the New Yorker from 2002 on Rescorla is a jewel. That’s one of the articles where I actually miss having a subscription.

    • They’ve lost their compass in all the insanity. It’s sad.

      I remember 9/11 very well because I was standing in my Chicago living room in a towel, dripping wet after having just come out of the shower, walking back from the kitchen with a bagel from the toaster oven. I was tuned to Peter Jennings, who was as lost as everyone else trying to figure out why a plane had just flown itself like a guided missile into the north tower. I had been in the WTC many, many times as a child, and I knew right away that it was no accident. I stood there completely naked for what seemed like an eternity, and I only snapped out of it because I knew the buildings were going to collapse, there was no way around it.

      Rescorla and Hill were exactly right about Columbine, also. You have to charge the shooter in those situations, there’s no other alternative.

  6. I thought HBO’s Chernobyl was excellent, albeit a bit gruesome.

    The helicopter boron-drop was included as a scene in the miniseries. (Spoiler https://youtu.be/209n4m6rwGc)

    Unlike a previous commenter, I didn’t see much propaganda. There was an emphasis on “lies” but that had more to do with the secrecy of the Soviet regime than with the anti-nuclear sentiment. The accident was an unlikely compilation of a hidden design defect, end-of-month Soviet production quotas, a reckless performance test.

    Another recurring theme was that the dosimeters measured 3.6 roentgen, which was what was reported to the Central Committee. Authorities were initially misled, because no one conveyed that the dosimeter maxed out at 3.6 roentgen.

    Was fun to watch during the lockdown, and compare to contemporaneous news stories still available on the internet as well as my own faded recollection.

    • I grew up in Soviet Union, and fully share anti-soviet sentiment displayed in the show. However, they misrepresented consequences and dangers (there are bunch of articles about this) – this is anti-nuclear propaganda, they showed events in more gruesome way than actually happened – fear-mongering.

  7. The HBO series was good. It is about the characters and the drama more than about the facts, but, given these caveats, it is entertaining. It is a British production btw.

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