Nuclear Attack In Kingman, Arizona - Part 1 of 4 Articles
Feature Story - Phoenix Magazine
Submitted by Eleanore Fanire
In 1945, the U.S. military dropped atomic bombs on Japan, killing tens of thousands of Japanese civilians. Seven years later, it start-ed dropping bombs in Nevada, indirectly killing untold numbers of American civilians. No one knows for sure how many Arizonans have died from the fallout, but in Kingman, they're still counting, and survivors Worry the numbers will increase if the government follows through on its plan for another round of nuclear tests.
"We were watching history being made," says Eleanore Fanire, thinking back 50 years to her childhood days in Kingman, and back to the days when Route 66 was still America's favorite highway. "The teachers told us it was like a science project, and we'd stand in the schoolyard and watch."
She and her classmates were learning firsthand that light travels faster than sound, as they saw the "bright yellow" flash before they ever heard the "boom." To this day, she doesn't need to close her eyes to see the brilliant mushroom cloud that rose up, up, up and ignited the sky less than 150 miles away. And she clearly remembers the "pink dust" that always came after the glow, clinging to the sweaters and jackets and shoes of children who giggled with glee at such an unbelievable sight.
Sometimes there were Geiger counters at the school doors, and the needle would swing wildly, and some kids were chosen to wear badges that measured radiation, but nobody was concerned. "The government said this was safe, that there was no-thing to worry about," Fanire recalls. "The tests were like a celebration - in Las Vegas, they served 'boom burgers' on test days. Our teachers didn't know, either."
From the time she was 8 years old until she was a high school graduate - from 1952 through 1963 - Fanire and her family and friends saw that scene again and again and again. And for a long time, standing in the schoolyard watching a nuclear bomb explode at the Nevada Test Site was one of those happy childhood memories of growing up in Kingman. Just like those Saturday street dances, where everyone brought potluck and made the town feel like a family.
"Nobody ever thought the government would poison its own people," Fanire says now, with both sadness and anger.
The cancers came 10, 15, 20 years later, taking one person after another, showing up in the children eventually born to those kids on the playground. They say you can walk down Spring Street, with its lovely antique architecture, and recite the cancers house by house. Experts say five generations will suffer before all that radiation will finally stop its slaughter.
For Fanire, the effects are felt in first person. By the time she was 33, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer - she's now in remission. By the time she was in her mid-50s, she'd lost her father and mother and brother to cancer. Then, at the age of 11 months, her granddaughter was diagnosed with leukemia. As Fanire approaches 60, she says, "Half my high-school classmates are gone." And she hasn't even suffered the most.
That dubious distinction goes to Danielle Stephens. As a teenager, this fourth-generation rancher would saddle-up "Bommer" and ride with her dad and uncle, brother and cousin to a mountain on their property. They had an unobstructed view of the spectacular plume that reminded her mom of the aurora borealis. They thought nothing of it when the pink dust hit them, even though her dad was suspicious.
Stephens eventually lost her father to both kidney and colon cancer; she lost that uncle, Dale Cofer, to throat cancer; she lost that cousin, Clint, to lung cancer; and her brother has prostate cancer. Although she herself isn't sick, she lost her 36-year-old daughter to an illness so mysterious that nobody ever really figured out what it was. At last count, not including her daughter, Stephens has lost 26 of 31 family members to cancer, a number so stunning - a reality so awful - that when she talks of it now, it's through the fog of unbearable pain.
"Nobody has lost as many family members in a war," she says. "Not even the Sullivan family in World War II - they lost five brothers and two cousins. I've lost more than that right here in Kingman."
The mothers, the fathers, the sons, the daughters, the aunts, the uncles… they're called "Downwinders," and their story is a piece of American history that's hard to comprehend. Perhaps even more perplexing, however, is the fact that history is about to repeat itself - the federal government wants to resume nuclear testing at the same test site.
The funding for the program was buried in the military appropriation that provided money for the troops in Iraq. It's gone mostly unnoticed, but the appropriation, which totals approximately $34 million, is in place to remodel the Nevada Test Site and prepare it for tests of the "new" nuclear bombs that America plans to develop - bombs that have already received millions of dollars in research money. Although the appropriation hasn't been front-page news, the Downwinders of Mohave County are well aware of it, and they have two simple questions for their president and their congressional delegates: What in the world are you doing, and haven't we suffered enough already?
Even those who lived through it are astonished to learn the extent of the federal government's nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s. The numbers are unbelievable. Consider this: The "Little Boy" H-bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, was 20 kilotons - the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT. It killed 66,000 people and injured at least as many. The "Fat Man" H-bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, was another 20 kilotons. It killed 39,000, with an equal number of casualties.
But starting just seven years after that war ended and going on for more than a decade, the United States government exposed Americans to 50 times more radiation than was released with either of the bombs dropped on Japan - unleashing in the Nevada desert 129 above-ground nuclear tests totaling 986 kilotons. That's the equivalent of 986,000 tons of TNT.
Some bombs were set off at night - Fanire remembers them lighting up the sky like a "giant firecracker." Some came in the early morning, and some in the midday. And almost every one of those tests was scheduled during the school year.
As it turned out, those atmospheric tests sent fallout across most of the United States, reaching all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the Centers for Disease Control says that everyone living in the contiguous U.S. since 1951 has been exposed to radiation fallout from those tests.
But the worst of the fallout was in the Southwest, including six counties in Northern Arizona. (In addition to the above-ground tests, 804 underground tests - some of which breached the surface and created their own atmospheric plumes - were conducted into the 1980s.)
The devastating cancers that came later were so obviously tied to those tests that in 1990, Congress approved settlement payments to the victims of America's nuclear testing program. Congress decided that each death was worth $50,000 to the immediate family. Parents could collect on dead children; children on parents; spouses on each other. But not sisters for brothers, nephews for aunts.
Congress also decided that only a very small area - some of Utah and Nevada, and just a sliver of land known as the "Arizona Strip" - would be covered. Amendments in 2000 added the Arizona counties of Yavapai, Gila, Apache, Navajo and Coconino, but amazingly, not Mohave County, even though it is the closest Arizona county to ground zero, and records some of the highest cancer rates in the state.
Governor Janet Napolitano and several state lawmakers are trying to get Mohave County included in another amendment - trying to get compensation for the people who have given their lives for their country - but for the most part, the Downwinders of Mohave County have been left to fend for themselves.
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