The Forgotten Victims of the First Atomic Bomb Blast
More than 70 years after the nuclear testing that destroyed their community, the Tularosa Downwinders are looking for justice. But will they get it?
July 16, 1945: At 5:30 in the morning in the mountains of south central New Mexico, something shook Barbara Kent out of her top bunk bed. The 12-year-old girl crashed down on the floor of the Ruidoso, New Mexico cabin where she was attending summer camp.
"It was the biggest jolt you could imagine," says Kent, recalling to VICE the moment—71 years ago this past Saturday—that the first atomic bomb was detonated in the nearby white sands desert. "We were all sitting there on the floor wondering what [was] happening."
Kent was one of 12 girls that had arrived days before to attend summer camp organized by their dance teacher Karma Deane. "[Ms. Deane] thought the water heater had exploded so we rushed outside. It was just after 5:30 and it should have been dark—but it was like the sun had been turned on," says Kent, describing the light, brighter than a dozen suns, produced by the first successful test of a nuclear weapon.
Later that afternoon, the campers were inside the cabin when they noticed a delicate white powder falling outside the windows. "It was snowing in July," Kent remembers from her home in California. There was excitement and confusion as the girls ran outside to play in the unexplainable weather. "We were catching it on our tongues like snowflakes. Scooping the ash and putting it all over our faces."
71 years later, Kent—now 84 years old—has suffered multiple bouts of cancer and is the sole remaining survivor of the camp (10 of the 12 of died before they turned 40). "This is no coincidence," she says. Like many other Trinity Downwinders, Kent blames her health problems on the government, which did nothing to warn residents of the danger of the radiation exposure caused by Trinity. "It was so wrong of the government not to evacuate everyone when they knew this was going to happen. They never told us so we played in the thing that killed us."
The hundreds of luminarias/farolitos that light the evening sky in Tulurosa New Mexico. Each luminaria represents a member of the community that has passed away.
For many years, the cries for help of New Mexico Downwinders have gone unheard, while the impacts of the radiation on these communities are still largely unknown due to a lack of data or studies on the fallout.
According to a study on radiation releases since 1943 by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA), "Too much remains undetermined about the exposures from the Trinity test to put the event in perspective as a source of public radiation expose or to defensibly address the extent to which people were harmed." While conducting the study, the CDC and LAHDRA were given unprecedented access to previously classified and internal documents at Los Alamos National Labs.
"We were unknowing, unwilling, and uncompensated participants in the world's largest lab test," says Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Downwinders, a consortium which has been fighting for both recognition and compensation for the dowinders in the Tularosa basin of New Mexico. This year, the Downwinders began collecting health surveys (400 so far) on rates of cancer and other other diseases that plague Tularosa Basin communities. "The effects to us are clear," she says, pointing out that everyone in her community has lost someone to diseases linked to radiation exposure.
According to health physicist Joseph Shonka, the impacts described by Cordova are likely in areas near the blast. "Trinity created more fallout than at other nuclear tests," says Shonka, who headed up the aforementioned CDC LADHA study. "At the Nevada site the closest people were 150 miles away. Here you have people 15 miles away. There is no question the exposures were higher than in Nevada and Utah."
"The people who lived in downwind of the Trinity blast were exposed to clouds of radiation that blew from the explosion," New Mexico Senator Tom Udall states in an email; Udall is a longtime supporter of the New Mexico Downwinders. "Radioactive debris fell from the sky, killing cattle and poisoning food and water, and generations of residents have suffered from cancer and other illnesses."
"From the beginning, the government has refused to take responsibility," he continues. "We can't undo the years of suffering, but we should make sure the victims receive similar recognition and compensation that other residents have received," Udall's referring to the compensation given to those effected by the Nevada Test site through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) and denied to New Mexico Downwinders.
This past Saturday in Tularosa, community members fanned out behind the dugout of the local high-school base ball field to take part in the 7th annual Vigil commemorating the anniversary of the Trinity test. "This year, we have 700 Luminarias," says Tina, motioning towards the small paper lanterns that dot the outfield—each light representing a Tularosa resident that has been lost to cancer.
"We have all been affected," says Henry Herrera, sitting with his wife Gloria along the first base line, their chairs pointed toward center field and the direction of the blast he himself witnessed at age 11. "I remember I was helping my dad pore water in the radiator, holding the funnel. Just as we got done with it there was was a hell of a blast and the cloud went up." The radioactive plume rose over 38,000 feet in just minutes.
Herrera's father thought it was an explosion from the nearby white sands missile range; he himself recalls being mesmerized by the massive mushroom cloud. "I watched it outside for hours. It rose up and up to the east. The bottom half kept on going but the top half pushed back and landed right here." When he saw the dust from the cloud approach the house, he ran inside to tell his mom. "I very well remember because my mom was so angry. She had just hung up our clothes on the line—you can imagine what they looked like."
"People around here were dying right and left," says Herrera, who has since lost countless friends and family to cancer, himself a survivor. "Nobody knew what was going on, they just died."
The fallout around Trinity was, according to Shonka, potentially far worse then even Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "The cap is the nuclear bomb, and the stem is all the dirt that was swept up into it," he explains, describing the iconic mushroom shape produced by a ground blast like the one at Trinity. "The bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were detonated at 1900 and 1650 feet. Their stems never touched their caps, so there was never much fallout.
When you have a ground level blast like Trinity a large amount of dirt is sucked into the cloud and mixed with radioactive material. The temperatures are so hot that everything melts. As the cloud cools off, different things condense out at different temperatures. As they solidify again, they fall out."
When asked about the incidences of cancer and other deceases related to radioactive expose, Shonka said, "If you ask me if there is high likelihood that there are health related issues from Trinity, I can say yes. As for why the Nevada Test downwinders have been given compensation and New Mexico hasn't—that's a question with a political answer."
"If we were compensated, then the government would be admitting guilt" Gloria Herrera claims. "The would be admitting the fact that they bombed us first." Her husband elaborates, "We are small. We are poor. We have no political power."
For years, the voices of Trinity Downwinders were absent from political dialogue, newspaper coverage, or even public awareness. Archival research done by VICE at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico, found numerous clipping from local papers, stretching back to the 50s, reflecting on the legacy of the Trinity Test. Yet until recently, there was no mention of the first victims of the Atomic Age.
This has begun to change.
In 2015—some 70 years after the Trinity test— the National Cancer Institute began the first-ever official health study to quantitatively estimate the number of cancer cases in New Mexico (past and future) that may be related to the nuclear test. That same year, Senator Udall took the senate floor and made an impassioned speech in support of the amendments to add New Mexico Downwinders to the government's Radiation Exposure Compensation Program (RECA).
Support has grown: Both US Senators and all 3 US house members from New Mexico are co-sponsors to the RECA amendments. But the measure has failed to advance in Congress for several years.
"Many people here have little faith in the federal government," says Tina, noting the trepidation of NM Downwinders towards both the federally funded health study and the will of congress to included their claims. "Many think we are just looking for compensation," says Cordova, "Which we deserve. "But even more than anything we want the government to acknowledge what they did. We were the first sacrifice of the atomic age. That needs to recognized and corrected."
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