High Risk, No Reward

By Rachel Traczyk, BombSquad Fellow

“My name is Henry Herrera. I am 81 years old. On the morning of July 16, 1945, (70 years ago) at about 5:30 AM, at the age of 11, I was helping my father fill the radiator of his truck with water when I witnessed the blast of what I call “the first atomic bomb.” I heard a very large blast and saw a very big flash of light. I got so scared I thought the world is coming to an end. Then I saw what looked like a large, big, black, giant ball of smoke. It was huge and moving, going higher and higher in a northeasterly direction. At the age of 63, I became ill with cancer. I’ve lost my brother, a nephew, and a niece to cancer. Two sisters were cancer survivors.”

On the fateful day of July 16, 1945 at 5:29 AM, ‘The Gadget’ was detonated at the Trinity test site in New Mexico. The United States had cracked open Pandora’s box, and released nuclear weapons to the world. The aftershocks were felt and seen, as vivid, intense light flashed not only across the entire state of New Mexico, but it was reported to be observable throughout parts of Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. At the time, it was deemed a successful experiment for the Manhattan Project. But, in reality, this was a catalytic moment in history that would damage thousands of lives and leave consequences that humanity will be grappling with for generations to come.

The U.S. government reported the area chosen for this testing was “remote and uninhabited.” Empty words, as there were anywhere from 40,000–70,000 people in the surrounding area at the time of detonation. Some of these citizens lived as close as 12 miles outside of the testing site. The majority of these people were indigenous Americans and other minorities. The Trinity test site lays in the middle of the four counties of Lincoln, Otero, Sierra, and Socorro — and to this day, all of these areas are dealing with the negative effects of this singular moment in history.

According to Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, one moment was all it took for nuclear fallout to affect generations of “unknowing and unwilling” New Mexicans. They were not evacuated before the test or even warned about any potential hazards. To make it even worse, the testing occurred during the month of July during the ‘rainy season,’  contaminating farmers’ crops and, by extension, the local food supply. The damaging effects of this became apparent later through high levels of cancer, illness, and death.

These illnesses were reported by New Mexicans and ignored for a solid 70 years before gaining any governmental notice. It was in October 1947, only two years after the initial detonation, that reports of a spike in infant mortality rates immediately following and directly related to the Trinity test first began. Interestingly, by this time there were scientifically credible warnings about the potential harm of nuclear fallout — and yet these claims were still widely ignored as authorities took little to no action in response.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1990 that the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed by Congress providing compensation to parts of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada for the harmful effects of nuclear testing on downwinders. However, despite the multitude of reported health crises in southern New Mexico, it completely excluded the people of New Mexico from any compensation or help – a wrong that still has not been righted despite many failed attempts over the years such as the Radiation Compensation Act Amendment of 2015.

Since 2005, the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium have fought for restorative justice for minorities and unknowing victims and raised awareness of the harm that these nuclear weapons have caused as the government continues to not take action — ultimately ignoring these people and the health consequences that they have experienced. This work is done under the leadership of co-founder Tina Cordova, a fourth generation cancer survivor affected by nuclear fallout from a test in 1945.

Nuclear testing at the Trinity test site occurred on the backs of these already marginalized communities. Gambling on the fact that these impoverished citizens –- many of whom didn’t even have running water in 1945 — wouldn’t have the resources to fight back. However, many generations later, the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium has proven that wrong, as they continue to spread awareness of this event through educating the people of New Mexico, delivering speeches, and other forms of political activism.

The crimes committed against these people are unforgivable and cannot be undone, and we, as a nation, are responsible for the horrors and inhumane treatment of communities such as those in New Mexico. It is the duty of both the government and civilians like us to acknowledge the nuclear horrors that have befallen marginalized communities and assist them in their fight for justice. We can no longer deny the harmful effects of nuclear fallout and continually silence those that speak out. Too many lives have been lost under the false narrative of nuclear progress. The bomb detonated at Trinity should not be remembered as evidence of man’s incredible capacity for innovation, but instead our capacity for inhumanity. It has cost us thousands of lives, the decimation of entire cities, and generations of lasting effects. In reality, the death of any human being — foreign or domestic — is a tragedy and should never be considered “a success in human history.”

Join me over the next few weeks as we interview members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, such as Tina Cordova, and gain more information on their work in a series of blog posts!