Category Archives: Investigative Report

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 – Robert Matzen

lombard Aviation is truly one of the world’s modern marvels.  To say that it has made the world smaller is an understatement.  There is something mystical and surreal about moving through the air at 39,000 feet, at speeds in excess of 500mph.  Every flyer knows that there are inherent dangers when we take to the skies.  Pilots are incredibly skilled and make the experience seem like magic to those of us in the cabin.  And air travel is safer today that at any point in history but there many tragedies over the years that we have learned from in order to make air travel as safe as possible.  Seasoned pilots will tell you that the early days of aviation were quite dangerous and flying literally was like rolling the dice. On January 16, 1942, movie star Carole Lombard (1908-1942) was a passenger on TWA Flight 3, a flight that began in New York and had a final destination of Burbank, California.  Most of the trip was routine, but a sudden change of events in Las Vegas, changed the course of history and resulted in one of the deadliest aviation accidents of the 1940s.  Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed full speed into Mt. Potosi, causing the aircraft to disintegrate upon impact.  There were no survivors.

The official cause of the disaster is still a mystery.  At the time, flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders did not exist in the form that they do now. The pilot, Wayne Clark Williams and co-pilot Stillman-Morgan Atherton Gillette, took what they knew with them to the grave.  For decades, the case remained dormant but author Robert Matzen brings the past back to life in this gripping account of the life of Carole Lombard, her husband and legendary film star William Clark Gable (1901-1960) and the plane crash that shocked a nation.  Matzen has visited the crash site which is still littered with debris and other grisly finds.  He has reviewed thousand of pages of records including FBI files and official investigation records by the Civil Aeronautics Board (1939-1985). And what he has compiled is a thorough investigative report into the accident that rob Hollywood of one of its brightest stars.

Flight 3’s demise of the crux of the book but the author also tells the story of Lombard’s life, from her humble beginnings in Fort Wayne, Indiana to her success in Hollywood during the golden age.  Matzen leaves no stone unearthed, revealing the very private side of Lombard’s life, replete with romances, tragedy and and a near-death experience many years before she met her fate on Flight 3.   The author captures the aura of the golden era in Hollywood, a time unlike anything the world had seen previously.  Some of the greatest names in Hollywood history appear in the story, coming into and going out of Lombard’s life as she moves through Hollywood’s upper echelon.  She eventually crossed paths with Gable and Matzen provides an inside look into their marriage and the changes that took place in their lives after tying the knot.  Hollywood has dark secrets and stars sometimes come with many shortcomings carefully guarded behind a thoughtfully crafted facade.  Matzen looks past that showing the very human side of both.  The result is an honest an intimate portrait of two stars at the height of their careers whose relationship was on borrowed time.

Matzen wrote the book in a slightly different style.  In the first half of the book, the chapters alternate between Lombard’s life story and the reaction to the crash itself.  Towards the middle of the book, the seam is merged and the story moves forward as emergency personnel formulate plans to visit the crash site and recover what they can.  Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of accidents may find this part of the book difficult to get through.  The accident was nothing short of devastating.  As Matzen explained the violent nature of the collision, I felt a chill go down my spine.  I was also speechless as I read descriptions of the carnage that awaited personnel as they made their way to the crash site.  At the end of the book, there are photographs included which help to give the reader a visual image of the crash site.  Pictures sometimes do speak a thousand words.

Clark Gable remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars.  But what the public did not see was the struggle he waged in the wake of his wife’s death.  Matzen discusses Gable’s life after the crash and up until his death in 1960 at the age of fifty-nine.  Apart from the crash, this part of the book is also a tough read.  We witness the emotional and physical descent by Gable as he struggles to move on in life following the loss of Lombard whom he affectionately referred to as “Ma”.  His sorrow is strong and his life was never the same again. The author focuses on his emotional state and his surprising decision to enlist in the military during World War II.  Gable is a man apart and fans of the late star will find this part of the book to be equally heartbreaking.

As the book moves towards its conclusion, the author gives us yet another surprise with regards to the crash of Flight 2793 on November 8, 2007.  The Cessna was a T182t single-engine aircraft piloted by Civil Air Patrol. Col. Ed Lewis and copilot Dion DeCamp.  Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed directly into the same mountain as TWA Flight 3.  The coincidence was beyond creepy but did both flights crash for the same reason?  And why did two planes, piloted by experienced captains slam full speed into a mountain that by all accounts, should have been seen?  Matzen provides a very thorough and likely explanation for Flight 3’s crash and reveals interesting facts about 2793’s final moments. Perhaps the final truth will never be known about each flight but we do have an abundance of information about both crashes.  They each highlight the dangers of flying at night without proper visual aids and pre-flight planning.  May the souls on board of each rest in peace.

Before reading this book, I was not aware of Flight 3 and the sad ending to the life of Carole Lombard.   The book came as a recommendation on Amazon and for some reason the cover pulled me in.  It was truly a fascinating read and the pace of the book never let up.  Matzen has done an outstanding job. Highly recommended.

If you want to learn more about TWA Flight 3, researcher Mike McComb has an informative post on the tragedy titled January 16, 1942: Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), Douglas DC-3 (NC1946) Potosi Mountain, NV.  The post includes more photographs of Mt. Potosi, the crew and some of the passengers.  If you like this book, you will find the website to be highly informative and just as thought provoking as Matzen’s work.

ASIN: B01NCTWGWK

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll

Ghost WarsOn the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City.   As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability.  America had been attacked.  When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief.  The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado.  Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia.  Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed.  To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”.  Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public.  There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics.  The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized.  But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.

If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer.  Washington has no official position on it.   But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent.   Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift.   The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989.  The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.   The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States.  The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.  Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows.  And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.

The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious.  But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007).   All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow.  The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others.  The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office.  The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life.  Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.

Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death.   Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself.  But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm.  He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear.  Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering.  However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America.  That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.

Undoubtedly,  each reader will take something different away from the book.  But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief.   Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance?  Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community?   Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many.   For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.

ISBN-10: 0143034669
ISBN-13: 978-0143034667

Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader – Leo Zeilig

20190409_214533On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier.  The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock.   The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.

To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960.  Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination.  Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed.  And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star.   In less than one year,  he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair.  There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder.  To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.

The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others.  He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber.  Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation.  It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe.  From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.

Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”.   Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.

The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence.  Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity.  Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969).   Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock.  Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus.  Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal.  It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers.   But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.

Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him.  One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow.  His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response.  We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting.  The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.

The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches.  I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination.  The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker.  However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville.  Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.

I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book.   Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story.   They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography.  This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.

ISBN-10: 190579102X
ISBN-13: 978-1905791026

Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City – Jennifer Toth

Mole PeopleA subway ride through the underground portion of the New York City Transit system can reveal far more than most might anticipate.  And if you find yourself on a train passing through lower Manhattan, you might pick up images of abandoned stations or long-lost passages through the windows of the subway car, forgotten with time as relics of the City’s storied past.  The system itself is truly is a modern marvel that continues to be renovated and upgraded.   But there are still many parts that remain hidden, known only to workers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and possibly others who have dwelled in prohibited areas far removed from the sight of strap-hangers.  In the 1980s, the City saw a rise is the number of people living beneath the sidewalks, in crevices, tubes and tunnels buried far below the surface.   The total number of underground dwellers will most-likely never be known. But their existence is a telling sign of the extremes some people go to when living on the streets.  Jennifer Toth, stepped into this world, largely unknown even to those that live in New York City.  Some may call her foolish and others may feel that she was courageous.  I believe that she had a mix of many things as she covered the lives of those she met as she explored a completely unknown and different world that could only seem to exist in fiction.

There is a section in the book where one city worker describes the dwellers as a CHUD or Cannibalistic Underground Humanoid Dweller.   The name sounds ridiculous but was probably taken from the 1984 B-grade horror film of the same name directed by Douglas Cheek and starring the late John Heard (1946-2017) and a young Daniel Stern.   In the film, a court injunction has prevented the removal of radioactive material currently sitting under New York City.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unable to transport the material out of the City.  The homeless soon become exposed to the toxic sludge and are transformed into cannibalistic monsters that come above ground at night to hunt.   Highly imaginative and campy, the film is a fun ride for those who are aficionados of 1980s horror films and the movie holds a place in my own collection.  The majority of the film is purely imagination but the people who lived underground was quite close to reality.  And in this book, Jennifer Toth shows what the movie did not explore for obvious reasons.

Some of the people she interviewed for the book gave their real names while others preferred a pseudonym. Geographically, their locations were spread out across the city with the majority of the scenes taking place below Penn and Grand Central Stations.  Seville, Black, Brenda, Blade and Bernard are just some of the many dwellers that Toth encountered in the course of her research. Other figures who cast a darker tone are mentioned briefly in passing sections.   Shockingly, some of them came from good homes, graduated from college and possessed advanced degrees.   Abuse, drugs and dysfunction at home proved to be the common link between many of them and fueled their decision to go underground where it was “safe” from above. In the interviews they are highly articulate, aware of their surroundings and should be productive members of society.  And even more surprising,  some of them preferred to live underground.  But there also exist, another group of people, who ended up underground as an escape from lives that could be classified as hell on earth.

Each person has their own reason for moving underground but what emerges in the book, is an underground network of tunnels, caves and passageways akin to a city of its own where surface dwellers are not welcome and those who come down below are seen with the highest level of suspicion.  It is a world many of us could never imagine living in, let alone raising a child in as can been seen in the book.  The descriptions of the tunnels are graphic and those with a weak stomach will need a strong resolve to make it through some chapters.  Life underground is gritty, dirty and beyond dangerous. It is not for the faint at heart.  But miraculously, Toth was never seriously injured while conducting the interviews.  She may have had someone watching over her combined with an unusual amount of good luck or perhaps she did on the one thing that many above ground could never do for the people below and that is to simply listen.  Whether some of them embellished their tales is a strong possibility.  Drug addiction and mental health issues are largely prevalent in many of them and could possibly have played a role in the accounts that they give.  But what is accurate is the former existence of a large number of underground dwellers beneath the City.

The book was completed in 1993 and to my knowledge, there is no follow-up to the story nor would I expect there to be.  Her experience with Blade as detailed towards the end of the book is beyond enough to make anyone think twice about returning.  Some of the characters may still be alive today while others may have left the tunnels or died along the way.   In recent years, I cannot recall any discussion of the mole people and most of them have probably been relocated by City officials as the tunnels were cleaned up and the underground squatters permanently removed.  Some of them may still live underground, firmly hidden from prying eyes, but the number is probably far lower than the 1990s when the epidemic reached its height.

The book is revealing and sure to leave many readers in a state of shock.  New Yorkers unaware of the mole people of the 1980s and 1990s will find this book to be eye-opening about the city they call home.   The book shows the ability of humans to adapt to nearly anything and the lengths people will go to in their efforts to survive. This is a haunting look at life in a city beneath a city.

ISBN-10: 155652241X
ISBN-13: 978-1556522413

Pathological: The Murderous Rage Of Dr. Anthony Garcia -Henry Cordes and Todd Cooper

garciaOn March 13, 2018, Dr.  William Hunter came home to find his eleven-year old son Tom and housekeeper Shirlee Sherman lying in pools of blood after having been brutally murdered by an unknown assailant. Police soon arrived on the scene and detectives began their investigation into two homicides that unnerved the quiet suburban enclave.  Five years later on May 14, 2013,  doctors Roger and Mary Brumback were shot and killed in their West Omaha home.  The brutality of the murders shocked even the most seasoned investigators and left many wondering what how one person could commit such a grisly crime.  Detectives Derek Mois and Scott Warner became the lead investigators and continued to examine the two murders, looking for any clues that would lead them to a suspect.  A crucial link was soon discovered between the two victims and led investigators to take a closer look at the Department of Pathology at Creighton University.

Hunter and Brumback both worked at the famed institution and knew each other very well.  As detectives began to learn more about the lives of the two doctors and their common employer, the more they realized that the killer must be someone they knew, who had a deadly vendetta against anyone who worked at Creighton.   Authorities culled the personal files of all current and former employees, looking for anyone who might fit the profile of the killer at large.  The records were voluminous but Sgt. Mike Ratliff soon found a folder that caught his attention and stood out from the rest.  He brought it Mois’ attention believing that this was the person that detectives need to focus on.   The name on the file was Dr. Anthony J. Garcia and the events that followed would develop into one of the Nebraska’s most infamous crimes and place Garcia on Nebraska’s death row.

Outside of Nebraska, Garcia’s story received limited coverage and if not for this book, his story might continue to go largely unknown. But authors Henry J. Cordes and Todd Cooper have ensured that Garcia will always live in infamy as a homicidal maniac that took the lives of four innocent people and may have killed more had he not been apprehended. Old-school detective work done by the book, proved to be the key factor that broke the case wide open.  But there is more to the story than what has been reported officially. This is the true inside story of the effort to catch Omaha’s worst nightmare. Detectives raced against the clock as it became chillingly clear that anyone who worked with or above Garcia at Creighton might soon be a target. 

The book reads like a good crime thriller and I found myself deeply immersed in the book, not wanting to put it down at all.  The book is about two hundred fifty-eight pages and goes by quickly. But contained in the book is a story that is beyond shocking.  Some may wonder how could that happen in Omaha of all places?  Murder knows no bounds and location is irrelevant.   What is relevant, is the mindset of those who have the ability and willingness to kill, possessed by what is in this case, called pathological rage.

Omaha natives may choose to pass on this book, as they have probably seen news reports on their locals stations from the time of Garcia’s arrest until his conviction and sentencing.   For those outside of Omaha, this story of murder in the heartland, will cause you to rethink who we think to be capable of murder and who we assume to be the least likely to harm us.  In fact, as Dr. Hunter points out in the book, he never suspected that Garcia was involved.  Perhaps if their had been a suspect with whom Hunter had a far more explosive relationship, the doctor may have zeroed in on a possible suspect even quicker than authorities.  And while he did give Garcia’s name to investigators, he made it clear that he did not think Garcia was a threat.  The benefit of hindsight allows us to look in the past and see the critical clues that were missed but at the time, all involved went by what was solid evidence that would actually lead to a thorough and conclusive investigation.

True crime aficionados will welcome this thriller to their libraries and undoubtedly will be asking for more at the book’s conclusion.  To be clear, the story is not a glorification of Garcia or his crimes. In fact, the book has the opposite effect and the barbarity of Garcia’s actions him home with profound force. But what is paramount is that we understand the motives and thought process behind pathological killers to understand what lies behind their decisions and actions.  Murder is certainly not a new idea and has been part of society since the creation of humans.  And while we cannot prevent all murders, perhaps we do stand a chance in preventing another killer like Dr. Anthony Garcia.

ASIN: B07KQJL9Y1

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster – Adam Higginbotham

ChernobylIn the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, engineers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, began the process of conducting a test of Reactor No. 4.  Unwilling to postpone the test another year, engineers pushed forward under questionable circumstances that proved to have deadly consequences.  Within minutes, disaster struck as a thunderous roar and cataclysmic explosion were felt and heard throughout the facility.  The eruption of the reactor resulted in a complete implosion and the propulsion of a radioactive dust cloud into the atmosphere.   Instantly, Soviet officials set in motion an official coverup of the disaster in an attempt to keep the news of the reactor’s meltdown from reaching western news outlets. On the surface,  the Politburo maintained the image of business as usual, but behind the scenes it was pandemonium. In the days and weeks that followed, the people of Pripyat looked death in the face as the reality of the nuclear fallout become terrifyingly clear.   Within days, cross-winds moving across Europe carried the dust cloud across several countries, setting off alarm bells as radiation dosimeters showed readings that were literally off the charts.  Before long, it became clear that a nuclear disaster had occurred and the most likely source was somewhere in the Soviet Union.   Soviet authorities pulled out all the stops in denying anything was amiss but the truth began to leak out and forced Moscow to make troubling admissions.   These events an those that followed have become known as the Chernobyl disaster and that story is told here again by author Adam Higginbotham who tells what is perhaps, the full story behind the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

More than thirty years have passed since the tragedy at Chernobyl and the names of those who responded to the emergency have faded over time.  Some of them are still alive but many others are no longer here, having joined the long list of victims who lost their lives from exposure to radiation in the wake of the meltdown.   Their stories are told here, showing the many sides of a tragedy that shocked the world.  And by the end of the book, their names will become seared into the reader’s memory as the key figures that are forever tied to the legacy of Chernobyl.  The author has done a great service in keeping their memories alive and in the process ensures that they are never forgotten as time passes and the world continues to move forward.

The amount of research that went into this book is staggering and Higginbotham was able to personally interview several individuals including the former director of Chernobyl, Viktor Brukhanov, who has publicly stated that officials covered-up the disaster for twenty years.   Brukhanov was not there the night of the test but his position as director resulted in his conviction for negligence and a ten-year prison sentence of which he served five. His conviction was one of several obtained by officials as scapegoats became the focus of Moscow.  The reality is that the meltdown was the result of a series of events that Higginbotham explores in detail leading up to that fateful night.  And the true story is simply astounding.

Undoubtedly, the disaster itself is the focus of the story but the book is also a step back into the closed-door mindset of the USSR and its iron grip over the Soviet Republics.  The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev were put to the test as old-school hardliners battled younger party members who saw the world through a different lens.  Communism, the Cold War, deception and gross negligence all play a role in the story and will cause readers to stare in disbelief.   Those of us who are old enough to remember the events as they played out will recall the events that transpired as news of the meltdown trickled out of the USSR.   But as Higginbotham shows, the information that became known to western nations was only part of the story.  And even former International Atomic Energy Agency director Hans Blix, did not know the full extent of the damage.  Figures put forward by Moscow were often intentionally skewed in an effort to downplay the severity of the reactor’s destruction.   The Politburo was determined to restrict as much information as possible and the fierce battles between party members highlights the system of dysfunction that existed, partly based on the belief in Soviet superiority over its U.S. counterpart.

From start to finish, I found myself glued to the book as the story continued to unfold.  And although I vividly remember the story as it broke in 1986, I learned a significant amount of new information in the book.  To help the reader, Higginbotham provides detailed explanations regarding radiation exposure which are crucial to understanding the severity of the recovery effort and the physical deterioration of those who directly participated in saving the plant.  None of the workers and responders were able to completely recover and struggled in later years with failing health and painfully slow deaths.  Thousands of men, women and children were exposed to radiation but the full number is probably far higher than Soviet officials were ever willing to admit.  Incredibly, officials resisted calls to evacuate Pripyat, believing such an act would be an admission that the situation was grave.  But as the truth became clear, officials were left with no choice and forced to evacuate the city which remains abandoned to this day.

Chernobyl has become the poster child for disasters involving nuclear disasters with its Ferris wheel and main building become bone-chilling landmarks from the city that is uninhabitable.  Pripyat has become so embedded in pop culture that it served as the setting for one of the chapters in the hit game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Today, there are those who visit Pripyat as explorers curious to see the fallout of a nuclear disaster in person.   And while the fourth reactor has been encased since 1986 in a protective shell to contain radiation, the surrounding areas still contains various amounts of contamination. Images and videos from visitors, show the  dark and desolate landscape of a once thriving city.   The sadness with which residents left Pripyat is captured by the author showing the multiple effects of the fallout, even to those who had not been exposed to lethal dosages of radiation.

Engineers have made significant advancements in safety procedures used to secure nuclear facilities.   Nuclear power, when used correctly, is considered a clean technology. It emits no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but a meltdown as shown here, would have devastating consequences.   The average person has little reason to think about nuclear power, but less than forty years ago,  the horror of a nuclear meltdown became frighteningly real and forced every nation that uses nuclear power to rethink its course going forward.  The danger of another Chernobyl has not left us and a meltdown could once again happen at some point in the future.  But I believe that if we remember the story of Chernobyl, re-told beautifully in this excellent compendium by Higginbotham, then we do have a high chance of preventing another Chernobyl before it has a chance to happen.

Towards the end of the book, the author also shows how the effects of Chernobyl played a role in the disintegration of the USSR as the Soviet Republics moved for independence.  Ukraine’s struggle is well-known and to this day, Russia has continually tried to exert its influence over its smaller-sized neighbor.  Chernobyl revealed a significant crack in the official facade of Soviet invincibility and changed the way the world viewed nuclear power.  Those who want to know what really happened on the night of April 25, 1986, and in the months that followed, will find the answers they seek and more here in this well-written and highly informative account of an event that should never be forgotten.

ASIN: B07GNV7PNH

Chrissie Morris Brady, psychologist, writer

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