On May 15, 1986, the Associated Press (AP) published a two-paragraph press release honoring three men in Moscow. Alexi Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov willingly volunteered to save half of Europe from suffering an explosion in Chernobyl.
Whenever Chernobyl is mentioned in history class, minds turn to the disaster that devastated the 19-mile patch of land, which still lies desolate in Pripyat, Ukraine. Things would have been much different if these three men had chosen not to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of Europe.
According to the AP, 10 days after the initial explosion, it was discovered that water had been building up under the core of the reactor. If the core of the nuclear reactor broke through the bottom barrier into the water, the steam produced by the reactor would create a much larger explosion that would spread radiation all across the continent.
Thankfully, a fail-safe was put in place when the plant was constructed: two valves that controlled doors to drainage pipes that could remove the excess water from underneath the reactor core. Unfortunately, there was only one way to open the valves — manually. The two valves were buried beneath extremely radioactive water. A team of three divers would need to find the valves and work together to open them.
Ananenko was recorded as saying that although he was not forced to dive into the water, he decided that he was best fit for the job.
“But how could I do that when I was the only person on the shift who knew where the valves were located?” Ananenko said.
Ananenko and the two others decided to take the job.
“When the searchlight beam fell on a pipe, we were joyous,” Ananenko said. “The pipes led to the valves.”
Soon after following the pipes, the team completed its mission.
“We heard the water rush out of the tank,” Ananenko said. “In a few more minutes we were being embraced by the guys.”
As expected, the nuclear core fell into the basement where the water was, although by that time, the water was gone. The team of three died of radiation poisoning two weeks later.
I sometimes think of the guts it takes to sign up to join the military, to choose to put yourself in harm’s way for the sake of others, or to travel across the world into dangerous territory as a missionary, so that others may learn and live. What does it take to make a person willing to give his or her own life? Some say that bravery is innate, but I believe that sometimes it is the split-second decisions that show true courage. There was little time for the team to choose what they were going to do, and in the moment, they chose that the needs of the many were greater than the needs of the few — even if the few were themselves.
I wonder if after the initial panic subsided from the decision they made, the team was able to find peace in what they chose to do. I wonder if they were able to close their eyes that night while they reflected on their sealed fate, and smile. I would rather die one hundred times over knowing that I saved many, even if I didn’t make it out alive. What a tragedy — what a beautiful story. Bravery isn’t something you are born with — at least not for these men. For them, bravery was born in them when they chose to suit up, dive in and save Europe.