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People exposed to fallout from 1st atomic bomb test still fighting for compensation

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The world's very first atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico in 1945 in an experiment known as the Trinity test. Movie "Oppenheimer" focuses on the scientist who developed the bomb, but hundreds of local New Mexicans were harmed by the test's fallout. Now some of them are fighting for compensation from the federal government. New Hampshire Public Radio's podcast Outside/In takes a look at this hidden chapter of history. Host Nate Hegyi takes it from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "OUTSIDE/IN")

PAUL PINO: Yeah, so we're at the Pino Gate here.

NATE HEGYI: I'm just going to come out with you...

PINO: Sure.

HEGYI: ...And get some sound of you opening the gate.

That's Paul Pino. We had just pulled into his family's modest ranch, a 10-minute drive from his hometown of Carrizozo. It's a dusty, sun-blasted crossroads of a place in central New Mexico, about 40 miles due east of the Trinity site.

PINO: You notice there was a tumbleweed stuck in your bumper?

HEGYI: Yeah.

PINO: Builds some character.

HEGYI: Exactly.

Paul is 68 years old. He was wearing a white cowboy hat and a Canadian tuxedo - denim shirt, blue jeans, sneakers. He's got a second career as a musician, but he grew up on this ranch. It's been in his family since 1892.

PINO: So this is all really good grassland, like, the land behind us. There's also this grass, we call it sacaton, or another word for it was Carrizo. And that's what the - where Carrizozo got its name - was Carrizozo, like, a place where there's a lot of this kind of grass, Carrizo. You see, it's that real - really tough grass. Like I was telling you, everything around here is tough.

HEGYI: New Mexico is beautiful, but it can also be unforgiving. Paul's dad was struck by lightning. His family would dodge rattlesnakes and flash floods, driving cattle 10 miles a day on foot. The cicadas are so loud here that they sound like saw blades.

PINO: Even the grass would cut you. I remember I was - we were walking up that mountain one time when I was about 3 or 4. And there was a really pretty piece of grass. And I said, wow, how pretty? And I grabbed it and I pulled it like that, and it just cut me like a razor blade.

HEGYI: As you said, this is a tough place.

PINO: Yeah. And so the people and the animals and stuff that have lived here for this long are tough, you know? And for some of them, nothing could kill them but radiation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEGYI: It was the early morning of July 16, 1945. Scientists and military personnel were wearing thick welding goggles to protect their eyes. They were hunkered in bunkers three miles away from the Gadget. That was the code name for the atomic bomb. It was sitting atop a tower about a hundred feet above the ground in a sparse valley of New Mexico known as the Jornada del Muerto, the Dead Man's Journey. It was the middle of monsoon season and it had been pouring rain and windy all night. The air was alive with the sound of desert toads chirping.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOADS CHIRPING)

HEGYI: And within a fraction of a second, the world changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION, ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: We knew the world would not be the same.

HEGYI: Here's J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist for the project, in an interview years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OPPENHEIMER: A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita - now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

PINO: Well, some people thought it was the end of the world, and they started praying like crazy 'cause they thought, the sun's coming up on the wrong side of the world.

HEGYI: The bomb had detonated at precisely 5:29 a.m. The light was seen as far away as El Paso, Texas, some 130 miles to the south. Paul Pino's family ranch outside of Carrizozo was only about a quarter of that distance away. Paul has heard stories of children playing in radioactive ash as it fell.

PINO: They said, wow, it's snowing in July. They were catching what they thought were flakes on their tongue and rubbing it on their face and stuff like that. Boys were trying to make snowballs out of it. So there must have been a lot of it.

HEGYI: Government reports back this up. Cattle were found in the vicinity with burns and hair loss on their backs. Scientists knew the bomb would produce radiation, but how much, they weren't sure. So the military stationed teams in nearby towns to test the air. They used portable Geiger counters, which, if you've ever seen any nuclear disaster movie, you'll know what they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEIGER COUNTER STATIC)

HEGYI: These teams found high levels of radioactivity more than a hundred miles from the blast site. In Carrizozo, it was literally off the charts. The Geiger counters didn't go any higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEIGER COUNTER STATIC)

HEGYI: Scientists and government officials discussed evacuating the town. They even had cattle trucks lined up outside the city just in case. But as the cloud of radioactive particles passed and settled, the Geiger counters calmed down. So they scrapped the plan and left.

PINO: Yeah. So those mountains there, the atomic bomb was just on the other side of them. Those mountains over that way, the purple ones.

HEGYI: Paul's mom and older brother were sleeping at the ranch when the bomb was tested. At the time, they lived in a small homesteading cabin, known as a jacal house. It's made of wooden poles and clay with a rusted tin roof.

PINO: They'd build what they needed to get by. Then they'd have a kid and they had to build another room, then have another kid, then build another room.

HEGYI: Chicano and Indigenous farmers in southwestern New Mexico have been building houses like this, relying on the land for hundreds of years. Wasn't much different in 1945. They hunted, raised cattle, grew vegetable gardens and they drank water from cisterns. They're these big underground vases that collect rainwater from the roof during storms. Paul wanted to show me one.

(SOUNDBITE OF CISTERNS CREAKING)

HEGYI: Wow. Nice. Inside, it was cavernous, the size of a bedroom and the kind of place you don't want to fall into.

PINO: Test, one, two. Check, baby, check, baby.

HEGYI: Tell me again. What did the water taste like?

PINO: Oh, it couldn't taste any better. It tasted, like, really light, really pure. Like, even the water that I drink at my house in civilization, you know, around Albuquerque, you can taste, like, a little minerals in it or something like that. The minerals really mess up the showerheads, everything, you know? But the rainwater tasted so good.

HEGYI: And so your family was living here in this small home, drinking water from the cistern and eating food that was growing out here. How do you think that they got radiation poisoning?

PINO: Through the water, through the milk, through the eggs, through the chickens that they'd slaughter and eat. They'd do hunting. They'd get it through the deer, the rabbits.

HEGYI: Radiation is all around us. You're exposed to a little bit every time you get an X-ray or fly in an airplane. Every time you eat a banana, you consume a little radioactive potassium. And that's OK. Humans have adapted to live with low levels of daily exposure. A lot of radiation comes from unstable versions of elements called isotopes. Isotopes are atoms that have extra particles they can't quite handle. And every now and again, one of those particles goes flying off, like a button on a pair of too-tight jeans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEGYI: Another way to think of it is that radiation is essentially energy. That's why acute radiation poisoning looks a lot like a horrible burn. A sunburn, in fact, is a form of ultraviolet radiation damage. But there's a difference between acute radiation exposure and radioactive contamination.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

HEGYI: These isotopes from the Trinity test, they drifted down onto roofs and got washed into cisterns. They seasoned the grass that cattle ate and worked their way into the cow's mammary glands. That's not going to register very high in a Geiger counter, but if you're eating and drinking those isotopes, they're still firing off particles inside of your body. They can penetrate your organs. And if you're exposed to a large amount of radiation, they can literally mutate your DNA. And over time, years or decades, they can lead to radiogenic cancers that grow inside your stomach, your bones, your thyroid. And you'd never have any idea it was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PINO: And you can look at some other things in here.

HEGYI: Yeah, they're both there - right? - in this photo.

PINO: That's my mom and that's my brother Greg.

HEGYI: Paul's older brother Greg used to drink milk by the gallon when he was a kid at the ranch. Paul found a photo of him in his house.

Do you remember when you first found out that he had cancer?

PINO: Yeah. They called us, and he said that they had detected cancer. But he says - he says, I'm in denial. And he's just, like, joking around. And I was just like - I just, like, laughed along with him, you know? So my family told me, my brothers and sisters - they said we want you to take some time off work and go out there and see how things really are. And I went out there and I saw right away, you know? I called him and told him, you better get out here, you know, within the next couple of weeks. Dying through cancer and through suffering is a terrible thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEGYI: Two studies from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Institutes of Cancer showed that there were high levels of radioactive material in the Trinity fallout zone as late as the 1980s, and that hundreds of people probably got cancer from it. Greg died from stomach cancer when he was 68 years old. Paul's mom, she died from bone cancer. His sister had multiple brain tumors. Another had thyroid cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEGYI: It's been more than 75 years since the world's first atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico, more than 75 years since we dropped two of those bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killing at least 110,000 people, likely many more. Ever since then, the United States has been coming to terms with how to address that history. In 2016, Barack Obama was the first sitting president in history to visit the memorial at Hiroshima.

But the United States has never really addressed the fallout from Trinity. A CDC report found that the military knew about its dangers to the people who lived nearby, but they were worried about endless lawsuits, so they brushed the whole thing under the rug. But over the past decade, Paul and the other downwinders have been fighting for accountability, and they don't want a memorial or a presidential visit. They want justice.

PINO: If somebody harmed your family, you would never stop trying to get justice for them. If somebody killed your daughter or your mom or your brother, even if it was by accident, you wouldn't stop until you have - had justice. You wouldn't stop until you had acknowledgement. You wouldn't stop until they told the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEGYI: Back at the Pino Ranch near Carrizozo, Paul was sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by pictures of his family and holding a nylon guitar. He wanted to play me a song written by another downwinder, Luisa Lopez.

PINO: Her husband, Ricardo, is a friend of mine. He helped us with the downwinders for years, and he died of cancer a couple of years ago. And so she wrote this song.

(Playing guitar, singing) Out there on the jornada, they bombed the land to hell. They said it doesn't matter, aqui no one is living. We won't cause any problems.

DETROW: On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to expand compensation for people who suffered adverse health impacts from the Trinity test fallout. The language was part of a broader defense spending bill which would still need to pass the House.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "OUTSIDE/IN")

PINO: (Playing guitar, singing) Underneath the flores.

DETROW: You can hear the full version of this story in the podcast Outside/In from New Hampshire Public Radio. That's Outside/In.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "OUTSIDE/IN")

PINO: (Singing) It ain't over till we win. We'll come back again and again. On the side of the Santos (Playing guitar, singing) we'll fight for our friends. It ain't over till we win. It ain't over till we win. So all you downwinders, come on... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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