Firefight at Chernobyl


Firefight at Chernobyl




A first hand account of the initial firefighter response to the disaster at Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 as told by LTC Telyatnikov, chief of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant fire brigade. Presented at the Fourth Great American Firehouse Exposition and Muster, Baltimore, Maryland, September 17, 1987 9:30 a.m. His remarks were made in Russian and were simultaneously translated.


Telyatnikov, Leonid Petrovich


1 sound cassette, 71 min. + 1 article


Firehouse Communications




Smith, Dennis ; interviewer


audio cassette; 71 minutes


Oral history


OCLC Record No.: 18595371


Chernobyl, Russia ;


Smith, Dennis


Kimatach, Igor and Telyatnikov, Leonid P


Baltimore, Maryland


As presented at the Fourth Great American Firehouse Exposition and Muster, Baltimore, Maryland, September 17, 1987 9:30 a.m.

DENNIS SMITH: I would ask you first to picture a concrete wall, about 20 stories high, like a 20 story building, no windows, some ladders in place that are nailed against the wall, going up the
sides of this building. A little more than a square building, so it's about 2S or 30 stories this way. There are four nuclear reactors in this building. The reactor number four, ' the fourth one, has been shut down for normal testing, and then it was
reactivated after the testing was done, except that the cooling system had not again taken place--so the reactor began to boil.
And it boiled for about 12 hours. And then it blew. There was an explosion, When the explosion happened, it was accompanied by a fire. I won't talk much about the fire. And the arriving firefighters. who were stationed at Chernobyl realized that they had an extraordinary confrontation. More importantly, they realized that if they did not deal with it instantly, that the fire could take reactor number three, number two and number one. And if that had happened you would have had a disaster many. manytimes the great tragedy that took place . And if it were not for the initial responding firefighters, those people who were first there on the scene--and each and every person in this room can identify with that feeling--what do you do when you get there. How do you assess, how do you act, what will be the consequences of what you do, and what will be the consequences if you don't do something. Given that scenario, in this extraordinary place, the emergency occurred. After the emergency, Lt. Col. Telyatnikov responded to this fire as it occurred about 2 o'clock in the morning--at 5 o'clock in the morning he was in the hospital. with severe radiation poisoning, where he stayed for many months undergoing therapy. His health is now good, thank goodness. The surrounding area, about 18 square miles. at Chernobyl. were evacuated. That again was a tremendous taSk, to evacuate some 50,000 people. And huge cranes were taken in, scooped up the dirt and put it on trucks and took it to a burial ground because the top surface of the dirt is radioactive in large areas. Of course, what could not be protected was the Wind. which carried some radiation off, as you all know--you've all read the newspaper. But we're interested here today. I think, in the story of the first responding firefighter, and what it takes, not
only in the stomach and in the mind, to be a firefighter, but also what it takes in the heart. And so I will introduce to you now three people. The first person, who has accompanied Lt. Telyatnikov to the City of Baltimore, is the Deputy Director of the whole fire service, the director of the firefighters in the
Soviet Union, Gen. Kimstach. The second person I would like to introduce is the interpreter, who is Mr. Khrustalev. He comes from Washington, D.C. And now I would like to present to you a man who won the Order of Hero of the Soviet Union, Lt. Col. Leonid Telyatnikov.


First of all let me begin by thanking you for the invitation to participate in such a highly representative convention of American Firefighters. My trip coincides with a great event, the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the
American Constitution, and I would like to congratulate you on that. (APPLAUSE) My name is Telyatnikov, Leonid Petrovich. I am 36 years old, married and I have two sons. Before the accident at the Chernobyl power station I was Chief of the fire brigade serving at the station. Briefly about the power station, so that you have an idea. Just imagine a machinery building which has (he says it in meters) 800 long, 55 meters across and 35 meters high. It's a ten story building. There were eight turbines producing electricity. From the northern exposure adjoining were four nuclear power blocks. This building is of a rather complicated construction features, about 200 feet high. The reactors of the third and fourth nuclear blocks were stationed in one building. We had the fire prevention system at the
station--fire alarm system. Automatic sprinklers for cables and power lines and other devices to defend. I'm just telling it so that you know that good technical equipment allowed for containing fire when it broke out within the building. And one more point: within one nuclear block building we had about 1,000 rooms, just to give you an idea of what we had to face. When the
accident happened I was still on my vacation and at home. On April 26 at 1:25 in the morning as a result of incorrect criminal actions of the personnel, the explosion occurred at the fourth energetic power block. They stopped the reactor for maintenance
service, and they also were running some experiments. As a result of the explosion, fires erupted on the buildings' rooftops and in surrounding areas of the fourth block, and building between the third and the fourth. We got the message as a result of the fire alarm system, which worked, and the firefighter who was at the scene also gave a ring. The firefighters unit led by
Vodry Napravik, having received the information, left for the scene. At the point he was 24 years old and just two weeks before the accident his daughter was born. Having seen what happened, he immediately gave the third, the highest degree of alarm issued •••• and started putting out fire on the building containing machinery--turbines--the one which is 800 meters long,
to prevent fire from getting to other buildings. Five minutes after Pravik arrived there, came the unit that was on shift, led by Viktor Kibinok from the local town--a person of 23 years, married and he didn't have children. At about one thirty-two or thirty-three the operator alerted me to what happened over the
phone. I called the person on duty at the militia station. which is your police, and asked them to send a car for me--the distance was about four or five kilometers to the station. I was just sleeping at night. Having arrived at the station I saw the following scene: it was a warm night, with clear skies, lots of stars •••• and the station was built of concrete with some bluish color, and the reactor block was damaged, emitting the bluish glow. Around the building on different levels, flames, some 1.5
meters high. And it was Silent. Just the nOise of three other blocks that continued functioning. And the firemen--firefighters who were moving up the ladders to the rooftop to do the job which you know so well. I am just describing this to you to give you an idea of what I was feeling when I came to the scene. The same
scene was witnessed by my com[ade~ that cam~ there earlier. Well, I even felt somewhat confused. But I very quickly regained control over myself seeing my comrades who came over and were doing their job, and I understood full well my responsibilities as a leader. Our task was to put out the fire on the rooftop,
inside the machinery building, some rooms within the building that contained the reactor, and to keep under control the situation in the building where the accident happened, because it would catch on at any moment in other rooms. As a result of the explosion and high level of radioactivity, the alarm system phased out, just wouldn't function. And one could get an idea of what was going on by just personally going and looking around. The emphasis we put was to put out fire on the rooftop and within the machinery building where the turbines were, and also from the side of the third block which was functioning at the moment, to prevent the fire from catching on there from the fourth block, which was destroyed. The height was 71.5 meters as I showed. The firemen of Lts. Pravik and Kidinog, the two units I already mentioned, were working on this, and also the shift that was on duty. and arrived at 2 a.m •• two hours five minutes in the morning from the city of Chernobyl--town of Chernobyl. The first to corne all in all were 28 men. And we fulfilled our task that was to localize the fire by around 3:00 in the morning. I was
asked many questions on this trip already as well. How the firefighters acted and behaved during this. It's easier to respond to this question for me in this aUdience, because you have a better understanding. It won't be enough to say that people acted in a businesslike fashion. Those would be the wrong
words. I think. As my previous firefighting occurrences and exercises show, people are different and they act differently under stress. Some are front-runners going ahead, some tend to be second behind their comrades' backs, or try to get an easier job for themselves. Unfortunately we do get this kind of men. But on this occasion I didn't witness such things. And this is
something that struck me most at the moment when I carne. Just an example: around two-thirty in the morning, when the first group of firefighters descended or were taken--some of them were taken down from the rooftop with symptoms of radiation exposure--I approached a group of firefighters. about five men. They were laying down their reserve hose on the ground. They didn't see me. I approached them from their backs. And I spoke to them, saying. "Guys. we have to relieve those who fell down on the rooftop." Hardly had I finished pronouncing these words when three men rushed to do this. And anything that was demanded was carried out in the very same fashion. They were carrying everything out Just running. This is the most important that struck me at the moment and I still see now, even now by my--in my mind the way people acted then. The first firefighters were
evacuated somewhere about a quarter to three in the morning. I got to the hospital at 5 o'clock in the morning. I didn't witness what was happening. I knew what happened from TV and newspapers. I was very brief In speaking about what I saw. Maybe I omitted something. The full exposition of the events is in thIs book we published in the Soviet Union. It is written by the journalists who were there all the time and covered the news, and I am leaving it for you. And I think it would be easier for me to answer questions. And there is some presentation to be made. And I would like to take this opportunity and present in recognition and gratitude and respect for the firefighters of the United States of America to present this copy of a sculpture that was put in the city of Kiev which symbolizes the activities of
the firefighters at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. And I would like to present it to the most known person from among the firefighters. (APPLAUSE) And this wall hanging with a pin. There is an exhibit in Kiev, a firefighters exhibit -- which reflects and covers the activities of Soviet people, not just firefighters to eliminate the aftermath of the nuclear accident. This is for the Convention. (APPLAUSE) I hope you would support me. I would like to present a book on our
firefighting service to Mr. Dennis Smith. and a book on a great Ukrainian river, the Dnieper. And a fiction book, A Great Fire (is) the title. We had this great fire in our country. I know that Mr. Smith wrote a similar book himself. (laughter) The author of this one is Vladimir Sanyin. whom I know personally.

DENNIS SMITH: I would like to say, Lt. Col. Telyatnikov. that I want to receive this extremely beautiful plaque on behalf of all the firefighters in America, and consequently it does not rightly belong to me, and I think that Clyde Bragdon is here today from the United States Fire Administration, the Director of the United
States Fire Administration, and I think I will ask that this beput in the National Fire Academy, and I will make a plaque in the meantime to explain it, and It will be there for future firefighters forever. We thank you very much. The books I will keep because I am such a lover of books. I would like now to make one presentation before we go to questions and answers. I would like to ask Chief Don Heinbach and Chief Pete O'Connor is
going to make a presentation to Lt. Col. Telyatnikov.

HEINBACH: Good morning, and welcome to our City. On behalf of Mayor Clarence "Du" Burns. Fire Chief Peter J. O·Connor. and the citizens of Baltimore. we would like to appoint you as an Honorary Battalion Chief in the Baltimore City Fire Department. Please accept this uniform hat and badge as a token of our friendship, in the spirit of peace and goodwill.

DENNIS SMITH: Thank you. And let's not -- these things go back and forth. I do have a little gift for Lt. Col. Telyatnikov and Mr. Kimstach. And these--I hope you've all seen these--these are all the little cuff lInks and blazer buttons and key chains and things from the American Fire--with the American FIrefighter
motIf, from Firehouse Magazine. (APPLAUSE) I would like now to take some questions for the General and for Lt. Col. Telyatnikov.

QUESTION: Given the fact that you are a first responding unit to Chernobyl, what types of apparatus and protective gear that would be appropriate for nuclear disaster did you have available to you at that time?
TELYATNIKOV: As to the protective gear, we didn't have anything special In our unit. Apart from what any firefighting service would have.· It's the firefighter's costume, a jacket and the boots and the helmet, the gas mask, the oxygen-containIng gas mask--breathing device.
QUESTION: Good morning. Joe Gallagher, New York City. I'd like to know if you used any portable hand-held instrumentation. and If you did looking back on that particular incident. what sort of instrument do you wish you had at the time?
DENNIS SMITH: Joe, can I just clarify that--instrument In terms of reading? a gauge?
QUESTION: Yeah, a portable instrument --hand-held. Correct.
DENNIS SMITH: To read the radiation.
QUESTION: The radiation.
TELYATNIKOV: We had the radiation level readers, but now people are working on that--the Idea would be to have not just a handheld device but something that could go in there and size up the situation before humans have to go In •• Something like a robot
device. Robot-like device--that would be good. Although the practice there, the experience showed that at some points the robots couldn't do what they were needed to do. The semiconductors malfunction with high radiation level.
QUESTION: Were you briefed--were you or your firefighters briefed on radiation levels or radioactive contamination levels prior to entry into various areas of the plant?
TRANSLATOR: When the accident happened, or just before during exercises?
QUESTION: Well, once the accident's happened, it's there.
TELYATNIKOV: We were told that there was a high radiation level. We could also see it from the debris of graphite around, lying around, and nuclear fuel, and pieces of zirconium that were on fire, with very bright-- the way they were burning, it's like the special lights you have on the 4th of July--what do you call it,
I cannot--(laughter) -- fireworks. But we were not aware of the precise specific levels and measurements at the moment. The staff--the personnel of the station could not tell us anything on that because the instruments they had were not designed even to
measure the level of radiation that we had there at the moment. They would just say that this is a high level of radiation.
QUESTION: William Harper, North Carolina. During your initial attack, what did you use other than water to delete the heat? Was foam or light water used on the fire itself?
TELYATNIKOV: We used just water. It was effective with the fire we were attacking. We were using water for the rooms and building surrounding the reactor. It was a fire of a general nature although with--albeit with a high radiation level--not the reactor itself of course. We had powders, I guess that's the term--we had powders and foam at our disposal but there was (no)
need in using those. Water was okay and quite effective.
QUESTION: As the fireground commander on the scene, at what time did you realize that your personnel were dying from radiation poisoning, and did you alter your plan of attack at that time to afford a little more protection for your people?
TELYATNIKOV: I didn't have an idea that they were dying--them as well as myself. After we got to the hospital around five in the morning, the doctors gave us the first medication. After ten in the morning we were all together, walking around, talking and smoking and we didn't think of death at the moment. We didn't
imagine that this would come to this. We were feeling ourselves quite normally, we thought this would be a check-up and this would be al lover.
QUESTION: I'm interested in how your fiure service is organized. Are you similar to the military placed by the government in each community or are you hired by each community - how are you set-up?

TELYATNIKOV: We have a centralized firefighter system in our country. We recruit people the way your police forces recruit. We come under jurisdiction the way our militia, which is the name we use for police--under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the
Interior, although those are two independent departments within one MInistry. Our service is a paramilitary one. It's closer to the military than civilian, although we're not military.
QUESTION:Rich Muller, Rutherford Fire Department, Rutherford, New Jersey. I was just wondering. out of the inltial fire responders, how many people died, and how many are still hospitalized from radiatlon poisoning?
TRANSLATOR: From among the flrefighters or civilian population?
QUESTION: The initial firefighters.
TELYATNIKOV: During the whole course of fighting the fire at the power station, those who died--six people all in all--were from the first group of 28 that came to the scene. Lts. Vladimir Pravik and Viktor Kibinog, Unit Commanders Tishura and Ignatyemka and Firefighters Tikinog and Vashuk. No one died from among the
firefighters apart from those six. They died in the period from May 10th through 17th, as a result of the dose they got while fighting the fire.
QUESTION: Are any people still hospitalized?
TRANSLATOR: Those. the General adds, who were on the rooftop of the reactor building--those were the six who died.
QUESTION: My name is Ted Jarboe. Kensington Volunteer Fire Department, Montgomery County, Maryland. Colonel, how long were you in the radiation area; the second question is, subsequent to that exposure. what was the calculated dose that you received and what were the symptoms, what was the post treatment, and how long were you removed from service before you could return?
TELYATNIKOV: The dose of radiation, the radiation emission around the reactor at different points and distances from the reactor were different. When you ask how long I was in the zone, one could say. you mean by the zone the territory of the power station. Because of everywhere within the station and in close
surroundings there was high radiation--radiation of different levels, somewhere higher, somewhere lower. The highest were on the rooftop of the building containing the reactor. And within the rooms where the personnel of the station was. All in all, around in the surrounding area of the station. I stayed for about
three o'clock--three hours. Several times--several minutes on the rooftop itself. just to size up the situation. I got the radiation disease of the second degree. It is somewhere from 200 to 400 rads. That's what the doctors determined, this is the amount of radiation absorbed. I was hospitalized and in a
convalescent home from May 26th when I was taken there, till September 5th. Then before returning to job I had my annual leave. I absorbed lots of medication and I had problems with my liver, and the doctors said it was normal. And so I was treated three more times until December 22nd, just for the liver symptoms only. All In all. it amounted to seven months.
QUESTION: George Hudak. from Whitehall Fire Department in Ohio. My question Is there or was there a pre-plan devised to handle an incident such as what occurred at the nuclear reactor plant and do the firefighters that would be the f1rst responders to
something like that receive any additional training more than what the normal firefighter would receive?
TELYATNIKOV: In general the firefighters units knew that their target was the power station. So they knew the conditions. Obviously training and planning was done with radioactive contingencies in mind. But this was an accident of a kind that no one could think of and plan for. Not even the reactor designer could foresee that such an accident could happen. That is why the Circumstances and conditions we had were different
from any scenario that could be planned. And that is why we were not preparing ourselves for an accident of this kind.
DENNIS SMITH: We'll only have a chance for another three or possibly four. It's my pleasure to introduce the Director of the United States Fire Admin1stration as the next speaker. Clyde Bragdon.
BRAGDON: Thank you Mr. Smith. I think it would be appropriate if you directed this question to Gen. Kimstach. If he could elaborate on and expand on his description of the Soviet fire service, particularly in terms of training and volunteers and equipment.
KIMSTACH: I'm quite prepared, we came here and it is our responsibility to share our experience, to respond absolutely to all questions. I understand that we have here the limits imposed by the framework of the convention, so I will be brief. I'm ready to answer all questions even without going to sleep after
it (LAUGHTER). In our country the firefighter service is
organized according to the laws that were passed back in 1918. After the Soviet power was established. On April 17 Vladimir Illych Lenin, the founder of our state, signed the state decree on organizing--on taking state and government sponsored measures to fight fires. And we commemorate this day as the day of the
Soviet f1refighters. In the book we gave there is a copy of this decree. Obviously a lot of things have changed during the past 70 years. But the firefighters service is one of the most important state services. We have a paramilitary firefighter service which is represented here today by Col. Telyatnikov. They are not unionized (LAUGHTER) and they have separate status
accorded by the state. This is a paramilitary organization
within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior. We have this kind of firefighter service in major cities with population of over 100,000 people. And at major important state industrial units. In other cities, we have a different status of firefighters. we call it professional firefighters although basically those are paramilitary as well. They also have--we also have firefighters at major industrial enterprises less fire prone. In the countryside and at smaller enterprises everything
is being done by volunteers. We have problems with volunteer firefighters as you do. We are trying to organize them in a way that there would be more assistance from them to the people and to the nation, and to encourage them to work more effectively-the
volunteer firefighters. The Chief of the firefighters of the
Soviet Union, whose deputy I happen to be, just published a book on volunteer firefighters. You can see the structure and I am giving it to you as a present. In voluntary firefighter societies we--the people who actually want to participate in firefighters action or to participate in preventive measure, we have all in all about 20 million people. But of course much fewer
people go on duty. This is a problem. maybe we should have less people but of higher quality. If someone enters, applies for the voluntary society. Just supporting it morally. perhaps we welcome it. Those are run by the councils of the voluntary. service in the countryside, at enterprises. in administrative regions. and the highest organs are within the republics, national republics. We have 15 union republics. states that make up the Soviet Union. We don't have any all-union voluntary firefighters organ. There is a coordination council made up from chairmen of the republican
central councils. and the chairman of this coordinating council is the chief of the firefighters of the Union. the government one. The state firefighters consult the voluntary firefighters. The leadership of the firefighting activities in the Soviet Union is carried out by the chief department of firefighters within the Ministry of the Interior. There is the vertical subordination within the ministry and horizontal through the local councils of
the people's deputies. We have--to train the firefighters we have two higher-education establishments. and two affiliates. And eight secondary education establishments. Besides the many republics and regions, we have training centers. We also have the All-Union Research Institute with affiliates. And there are two magazines that they publish. The magazine on firefighting has a circulation of 210.000 per month. for professionals and volunteers. and an information digest on firefighting information, where they give, in a nutshell. information from all firefighters magazines around the world, including the U.S. magazines. And from this we know about you, but nothing can
compete with personal interaction. This is why we thank you very much for your invitation. We thought it was our duty to respond to it immediately because it is our responsibility to share and exchange experience with your about the first major fire on a nuclear power station. Once again, I am prepared to give responses to your questions to the best of my knowledge and level
of experience. But this should not represent the session before the International Agency for Atomic Energy in Vienna. Last year, we had a representative delegation going off to Vienna for the conference on security matters in nuclear energetics. We brought
over there our reports, and fielded questions for a few days, to everyone's satisfaction.
DENNIS SMITH: Thank you very much. We have a final question of the morning.
MARTINI: My name is Dave Martini. I'm with the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company. I have a couple of questions on the operation of Chernobyl. Based on the media reports that we got in this country during your accident, I understand your reactor was moderated with graphite and the tremendous heat that was developed actually caused the graphite to begin to burn. Here in this country. we we moderate most of our reactors with boronated water. Boronated water. Is your country giving any consideration to changing over its moderation? And also, have you considered enclosing each reactor in a containment vessel?
KIMSTACH: We have built three types of reactors. The reactors that function with the use of graphite and water. The type that went wrong. This type was used with the first ever. with the first nuclear power station to be built, in 1954, in the city of Ormlnsk. We didn't -- the first ones were built without a metal framework. They functioned satisfactorily for more than 30 years.
But, the Chernobyl accident showed that improvements are necessary -- of the kind that would prevent wrong actions of the operators. This reactor was quite unstable on a very low level of power. And this regime of work was not even foreseen when it was designed. And the operators' actions brought this unfortunate result. So several precautionary measures had to be
taken. As a result these power stations became less economical and effective. And they are going in perspective to be phased out. They produce overall about 50 percent of energy produced by our nuclear power stations. The other type. of a water kind,
similar to your design, with a large building enclosing the
reactor -- they account for--also ,for 50 percent of our nuclear power stations and we would use this design more extensively.
The third type is the type of the so-called quick neutrons with liquid metal heat-carrying body. And the most powerful of those has 600.000 kilowatts. Our country proposed to jointly work out and prepare design of a new type. which is now being discussed
and worked on.
DENNIS SMITH: I would like to ask now that I think in--I don't think there's any greater way to show our gratitude to General Kimstach and to Lieutenant Colonel Telyatnikov than for us to stand for a moment of silence in the memory of the firefighters who gave their lives in fulfillment of their duties. (SILENCE)
Thank you so much.

Original Format

Audio cassette


71 minutes


Telyatnikov, Leonid Petrovich, “Firefight at Chernobyl,” Fire Files Digital Library, accessed November 28, 2020,