Less than two miles away, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant erupted, sending a plume of radioactive material spiraling into the atmosphere. The resulting reactor fire burned for 10 days, spewing 20 Hiroshima bombs-worth of radioactive material across the environment and into animals, crops, and water sources, contaminating them, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In the subsequent years the IAEA estimates that 336,000 people would be evacuated or relocated from the most irradiated areas surrounding the plant, 116,000 of which were evacuated by the end of the summer of 1986. But the residents of Pripyat had just 36 hours -- 36 hours to abandon everything they knew, leaving the city's streets to rot and decay under the weight of the elements.
Now, long after the radioactive dust had settled, fine art photographer Philip Grossman returned to the area to document a different side of the incident, the cleanup. His work, "500,000 Voices," highlights the more than half a million workers, known as liquidators, who flooded the disaster site after the explosion, risking their lives to minimize the environmental hazards of mass nuclear contamination.
"Everything in the city is contaminated," said Grossman. "They moved as fast as they could to clean up, packing all the material that was radioactive into garbage bags and trucks and burying it."
Grossman, who also works as a senior director of content acquisition for The Weather Channel, has visited the area three times, drawing inspiration for his work from the unique setting of his childhood.
"I grew up near Three Mile Island, so I've always had a fascination with what happened there, as well as what happened in Chernobyl," said Grossman. "I wanted to go to Chernobyl and do something that few people can, or want to do."
Grossman's work exhibits an exclusive flair; bribes and insider connections have helped Grossman make the most of his 24 days in the zone. On his first trip, Grossman gained access to the control room of reactor number four. On subsequent trips Grossman reached the top of nearly every structure in Pripyat, including the iconic Ferris wheel in the heart of the city, and the Fujiyama building, the tallest structure in the abandoned city. In all, Grossman's work covers nearly every square inch of the exclusion zone, painting an eerie picture of the environmental fallout of a nuclear catastrophe.
Maybe no site encapsulates the environmental impact of the Chernobyl meltdown more than the Red Forest. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the four-square-kilometer-stretch of pine trees just outside the walls of the power plant absorbed 80 to 100 Grays of gamma radiation, according to the IAEA, enough to kill all of the trees and leave the rotting stumps a reddish-brown hue. In response, the hoards of liquidators leveled most of the forest, burying irradiated trees under layers of sediment in massive trenches. The confines of the Red Forest were then re-imagined as a massive graveyard for contaminated materials -- helicopters, trucks, bodies, soil, anything exposed to radiation -- were all dumped en masse. Even though the Red Forest has since regrown, the area remains one of the most radioactive environments in the world; levels of radiation in the forest can reach 1 roentgen, 50,000 times greater than average background radiation levels, according to the IAEA.
"The Red Forest is the most radioactive place on earth," said Grossman. "We could only venture in so far until our Geiger counters would spike."
It was in the Red Forest that Grossman encountered the most radioactive remains. During one of his treks into the forest, Grossman unearthed a piece of stone from the reactor core, an article so saturated with radiation that he had just seconds to photograph it. Despite attempts to clean up the forest, as many as 500 of the radioactive trenches have yet to be investigated, and many more remain hidden, according to the BBC. So Grossman stumbled upon find after find, from the twisted remains of the helicopters flown over the reactor to squelch the blaze, to a sprawling field riddled with garbage bags full of radioactive insulation.
All of Grossman's images narrate a compelling tale on the complexity of an environment contaminated by nuclear radiation. In the 27 years since the Chernobyl meltdown, nature has returned from the initial radioactive shock with a vengeance. Pripyat's streets, once bustling with people, now crack from sprouting overgrowth, the main thoroughfare shrouded by a dense canopy of trees. A bushy green moss consumes the concrete facades of Pripyat's edifices. Most shocking of all, buildings are crumbling, battered by years of crippling weather.
"I've always thought that process of decay was beautiful," said Grossman. "I believe there's just as much beauty in the result of nature taking over, when there's nothing left, as a building's original architecture."