SANTA FE, N.M. — Before she died, Annie Chavez told her children the story of how 70 years ago it snowed in July, how the walls of the family home in Capitan crumbled and the floors rocked and the sun rose with a crack into the dark, predawn skies from the West, not the East. And how scared she was.
It was, she thought, the end of the world.
“Mom stumbled to her feet and started yelling at us to get our rosaries. She yelled for us to pray that our sins be forgiven and that we go to God,” Chavez told them. “Then my mom said, ‘See, it’s Jesus, in the cloud,’ and when I looked out the door there was the brightest cloud I’d ever seen.”
They didn’t go to God that day, much to the eternal despair of Chavez’s mother, and it was not until years later they learned that what they had seen and felt that early morning of July 16, 1945, was the detonation of the first atomic bomb on a desolate stretch of the Jornada del Muerto desert at a spot called Trinity Site, about 50 miles west of Capitan.
Three weeks later, two more bombs – designed by the scientists of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos – were dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki in Japan, killing and maiming thousands and leading to Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II.
But the Japanese were not the only casualties of the atomic blasts. Residents of those small New Mexico communities downwind of the Trinity Site had not been warned about the bomb and the consequences of the radiation levels that spewed out in unseen waves and in the ash that fell like snow on the fields, the waters, the vegetation, the animals.
“People here started getting sick and were dying at high rates. Whole families were decimated,” said Tina Cordova, an Albuquerque businesswoman from Tularosa, a town about 50 miles southeast of Trinity Site.
She herself is a survivor of thyroid cancer, though many in her family have not been as fortunate.
“We were the unknowing, unwilling, uncompensated victims of the bomb,” she said. “Our leaders point fingers at countries who poisoned their people when essentially the same thing happened here.”
It’s been five years since I first wrote about Cordova and the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium she co-founded in 2005 with Fred Tyler, also of Tularosa. Since its inception, the consortium has gathered hundreds of stories and surveys of those affected by the bomb blast. It also has worked to obtain compensation, recognition and a long-overdue apology from the U.S. government for what the bomb wrought upon its own people.
Despite their efforts and public protests like two scheduled for Saturday both in Tularosa and at the gate leading to the Trinity Site, the goals have not yet been met. Still, there has been progress.
In July, Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, became the first federal lawmaker to travel to Tularosa to listen to the residents tell their stories of death and illness and devastation. On the 70th anniversary of the Trinity Site blast that same month, Udall spoke on the Senate floor, urging his colleagues to approve Senate Bill 331, which would amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, to include the downwinders of New Mexico.
“The rest of the world didn’t know about the tragedies that happened in the Tularosa Basin. For a long time, the government denied that anything happened at all,” Udall told his fellow senators. “Attention was not paid then. It must be paid now.”
Since 1990, RECA has paid out more than $2 billion in claims to residents of Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Colorado stricken by radiation exposure from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. New Mexico has never been included.
Udall and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, who like Udall are among the co-sponsors of SB 331, have asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on the expansion of RECA. That hearing has yet to be scheduled.
That’s frustrating, Cordova said.
“We can gather a lot of interest and support, but until Washington hears us, until people of power listen, this remains a moral and ethical dilemma that needs attention,” she said.
For many, she knows, it is already too late.
“The generation before me is almost completely wiped out,” she said. “The generation I’m a part of is scared sick.”
Annie Chavez is gone, dead of stomach cancer in 1992, a week after turning 60. Her sister also died of cancer. In her earlier years, Chavez had five miscarriages. Her children said she never got over the morning it snowed in July, never understood why no one had warned them, never slept at night without a light.
“Damn idiots,” she told her children. “Didn’t even have the courage to tell us before they did it.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.