Chernobyl helicopter hero who survived lethal radiation levels while sealing off reactor dies

The Russian helicopter pilot who endured lethal radiation levels to contain the Chernobyl disaster has died after contracting coronavirus.

General Nikolai Antoshkin, who was 78, died in his home country last Sunday. 

He commanded an operation to seal off the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl power station just outside the town Pripyat in Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, after it exploded in 1986 following a huge power surge.

The exposed reactor core blanketed the western Soviet Union and Europe with radiation, with ecologists calling it the biggest man-made environmental disaster in history.

General Antoshkin commanded a fleet of 100 helicopters to smother the exposed core of the reactor with sand, boron and other materials, stemming the enormous flow of radiation leaking out.

The operation took around two weeks, with General Antoshkin and the other pilots exposed to beams of radiation and smoke emanating from the reactor.  

The Russian helicopter pilot who endured lethal radiation levels to contain the Chernobyl disaster has died after contracting coronavirus. General Nikolai Antoshkin, who was 78, died in his home country last Sunday

The Russian helicopter pilot who endured lethal radiation levels to contain the Chernobyl disaster has died after contracting coronavirus. General Nikolai Antoshkin, who was 78, died in his home country last Sunday

The Russian helicopter pilot who endured lethal radiation levels to contain the Chernobyl disaster has died after contracting coronavirus. General Nikolai Antoshkin, who was 78, died in his home country last Sunday

Following the reactor explosion, more than 100,000 people were evacuated and a 20-mile exclusion zone was established that still exists today.

Two reactor employees were killed in the explosion and 134 were hospitalized with acute radiation poisoning.

Of them, 28 died and another 14 succumbed to suspected radiation-induced cancer in the years that followed.

The disaster continues to have an impact today. Researchers previously found unsafe concentration of strontium 90 and caesium 137 in almost half of the wheat, barley, oats and other grains they tested in Ivankiv, about 50 miles outside Kiev. 

He commanded an operation to seal off the number 4 reactor after it exploded in April 1986 following a huge power surge, exposing the core and blanketing the western Soviet Union and Europe with radiation

He commanded an operation to seal off the number 4 reactor after it exploded in April 1986 following a huge power surge, exposing the core and blanketing the western Soviet Union and Europe with radiation

He commanded an operation to seal off the number 4 reactor after it exploded in April 1986 following a huge power surge, exposing the core and blanketing the western Soviet Union and Europe with radiation

General Antoshkin died after what was described by the speaker of the Russian parliament as a ‘difficult illness’, the New York Times reported. 

The military veteran had been been a deputy in the parliament for ruling party United Russia since 2014. 

Sergei Neverov, the head of United Russia’s faction in the Russian parliament, said General Antoshkin had been hospitalised with coronavirus.

In 1986, he led a team which were known as the liquidators. They were a mixture of military personnel and civilians sent to the Chernobyl disaster site.

The aim of the operation was to contain as much radiation as possible and prevent it from spreading throughout the rest of the Soviet Union, Europe and the world.

General Antoshkin had been serving in an air force unit in Kyiv when he became the commanding pilot of the operation. 

Air crews were sent to try to deal with the exposed reactor after fire crews who had been sent on the ground became ill with acute radiation sickness.

General Antoshkin commanded a fleet of 100 helicopters to smother the exposed core of the reactor with sand, boron and other materials, stemming the enormous flow of radiation leaking out

General Antoshkin commanded a fleet of 100 helicopters to smother the exposed core of the reactor with sand, boron and other materials, stemming the enormous flow of radiation leaking out

General Antoshkin commanded a fleet of 100 helicopters to smother the exposed core of the reactor with sand, boron and other materials, stemming the enormous flow of radiation leaking out

General Anotshkin dropped around 5,000 tonnes of material over the course of around two weeks to extinguish the raging fire and contain the radiation.

When he first flew over the exposed reactor, the general is said to have felt a tickle in his throat and had the overwhelming the urge to vomit.  

Although one of the helicopters crashed after hitting a crane, the airdrops successfully put the fire out. 

The helicopters were so radioactive afterwards that they were abandoned, with some later buried.

Overall, 28 liquidators died from radiation poisoning in the days and weeks after the operation.  

However, General Antoshkin went on to have a three-decade career in the Russian air force before serving in parliament.    

WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE 1986 CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR DISASTER? 

On April 26, 1986 a power station on the outskirts of Pripyat suffered a massive accident in which one of the reactors caught fire and exploded, spreading radioactive material into the surroundings.

More than 160,000 residents of the town and surrounding areas had to be evacuated and have been unable to return, leaving the former Soviet site as a radioactive ghost town.

Last year, scientists from Nasa sent eight fungi species from the Chernobyl exlusion zone (pictured in red) into space where they were placed on board the International Space Station

Last year, scientists from Nasa sent eight fungi species from the Chernobyl exlusion zone (pictured in red) into space where they were placed on board the International Space Station

 A map of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is pictured above. The ‘ghost town’ of Pripyat sits nearby the site of the disaster

The exclusion zone, which covers a substantial area in Ukraine and some of bordering Belarus, will remain in effect for generations to come, until radiation levels fall to safe enough levels.

The region is called a ‘dead zone’ due to the extensive radiation which persists. 

However, the proliferation of wildlife in the area contradicts this and many argue that the region should be given over to the animals which have become established in the area – creating a radioactive protected wildlife reserve.

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