The harrowing true story of Chernobyl's Vasily Ignatenko and his pregnant wife Lyudmilla.

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, a safety test at the Chernobyl Nucelar power plant in the Ukraine went awry when a sudden power surge occurred.

Just seconds later, the surge caused the power plant to overheat, as a series of explosions to the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs was set off.

Instantly, two men were killed in the blast.

In the weeks that followed, more than 100 people, the majority being firefighters who were first on the scene, developed acute radiation syndrome.

In just a few months, 29 of them died, with dozens more dying years later as a result of radiation-related cancers.

You can watch the official trailer for Chernobyl, right here. Post continues after video.

Vasily Ignatenko was one of the many first responders who passed away following complications from exposure to radiation.

In the new HBO series, Chernobyl, the rapid decline of Vasily’s health is depicted in gruesome detail.

But in fact, the true story of Vasily Ignatenko and his wife Lyudmilla Ignatenko was even more harrowing than the show depicts.

When Vasily was called to the Chernobyl reactor in the middle of the night to put out a fire, it just seemed like any other fire.


But when Lyudmilla finally reunited with her husband in a Moscow hospital, she knew something was terribly wrong. In just 24 hours, the 25-year-old had become completely unrecognisable.

Over the next few weeks, as she visited him in his hospital bed, Lyudmilla watched her young husband rapidly deteriorate.

“Every day I met a brand-new person,” she told Ukrainian journalist Svetlana Alexievitch for her book Voices from Chernobyl.

“They [the firefighters] weren’t wearing their canvas gear. They went off just as they were, in their shirt sleeves. No one told them [about the risk of radiation].”

chernobyl hbo
Jessie Buckley played Lyudmilla Ignatenko in HBO's Chernobyl. Image: HBO.

After meeting with her husband for the first time, Lyudmilla, who was pregnant, was told by doctors that she could not touch Vasily.

"'If you start crying, I'll kick you out right away. No hugging or kissing. Don't even get near him. You have half an hour,'" she recalled the doctor saying.

"He was producing stools 25 to 30 times a day, with blood and mucous. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there'd be a clump of hair left on the pillow," she told Alexievitch for her book.

"The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks – at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers – as white film... the colour of his face... his body... blue, red, grey-brown. And it's all so very mine!"

Exactly two weeks after being brought to the Moscow hospital, Vasily died.

He was one of the many firefighters who died as a result of acute radiation sickness following the disaster.

"The only thing that saved me was [that] it happened so fast," Lyudmilla said.

"There wasn't any time to think, there wasn't any time to cry. It was a hospital for people with serious radiation poisoning. Fourteen days. In 14 days, a person dies."

Lyudmilla Ignatenko mourns her husband. Image: Getty.

Following his death, Vasily was buried in a zinc casket under cement in Moscow. Even after his death, his body still posed a major radioactive threat.

In her husband's last days, Lyudmilla was completely unaware of the threat her husband could have on herself and their unborn child.

But when she finally gave birth, it all came to fruition.

Just two months after Vasily died, the then-23-year-old went into labour while visiting his grave in Moscow.

But just four hours after their daughter, Natashenka, was born, the infant died.

The baby girl, whose name was chosen by her father before his sudden death, died as a result of cirrhosis of the liver and congenital heart disease.

Today, the death toll from Chernobyl is still unknown.

The five-part miniseries Chernobyl is available to watch now on Foxtel. 

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