For four days, Ivan and Vera Pivovarevich knew nothing of the deadly radiation that contaminated their village in southern Belarus a decade ago.
Soviet officials tried to keep the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a secret - even from their own people.
Vera Pivovarevich was nine months pregnant on April 26, 1986, when an immense explosion blew off the 1,000-ton roof of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 at 1:23 a.m.
The family lived with its nine children in Zhitkovichy, about 120 miles northwest of Chernobyl and directly in the path of a huge, invisible radiation cloud.
A few days later, the Pivovareviches learned what Swedish scientists had reported days earlier to the rest of the world.
Soviet officials “said an accident had happened, and radiation is coming with the wind,” said Zoya Pivovarevich, 18.
The Pivovareviches now live in Spokane, part of a community of Pentacostals who have settled here. They left their homeland 4-1/2 years ago.
This week, they reminisced with a family friend from Ukraine about the nuclear catastrophe that changed their lives.
Before the explosion, Ivan Pivovarevich, 44, knew of Chernobyl only by rumor. The asphalt plant where he worked was barred from repairing roads in a guarded security zone around the nuclear complex.
“They called it the ‘forbidden zone,”’ he said through a translator.
The Pivovareviches admit they don’t understand nuclear energy or the health damage radiation can cause. Deeply religious, they thank God for keeping their children safe - so far - from radiation-related diseases.
“Because of the accident, we are worried. I had bad headaches at the time. But nothing has happened,” Ivan Pivovarevich said.
When medical teams checked the village children, their son Vasily, now 13, had some of the lowest radiation levels, Ivan said. Alla, 9, born three weeks after the disaster, also is healthy.
But Yelena Pavlenko, 17, another recent emigree who’s a Rogers High School senior and Zoya Pivovarevich’s friend, wasn’t so lucky.
She tugged on her blue turtleneck to reveal a visibly enlarged thyroid gland.
Pavlenko was 7 and living with her family in Nikolaev, a city of 750,000 in the southern Ukraine, when the nuclear plant exploded.
Her neck began to swell after her family arrived in Spokane 4-1/2 years ago.
“This has happened since Chernobyl. Nobody ever before in our family has had a thyroid problem.”
Pavlenko has seen a Portland thyroid specialist and is under the care of an endocrinologist, said her mother, Nina Pavlenko.
Since the accident, more than 800 children in the Ukraine and Belarus have contracted thyroid cancer, a rate 200 times higher than normal. Radiation experts say about 5,000 more will develop it.
The Pivovareviches continued to live in Zhitkovichy for five years after the accident. Life never did return to normal in the town of 14,000, they said.
Signs of the disaster were everywhere. Some 179 towns and settlements in an 18-mile “dead zone” around Chernobyl were abandoned, including some along the Pripyat River near the family’s home. Some children in their town lost their hair from radiation exposure, Zoya Pivovarevich recalled.
All schoolchildren were told to bring two pairs of shoes to school - one to walk through the contaminated soil, the other to wear inside. They couldn’t play outside at recess because of contamination fears.
“I remember having to cover my head” to deflect blowing, radioactive dust, Zoya Pivovarevich said. “But I was too young to be afraid.”
The click of the Geiger counter became a strange new sound in Zhitkovichy’s daily rhythm.
The cucumbers and other vegetables the family grew to supplement their income had to be checked for radiation before they could be sold at the market.
The government paid them 30 rubles - about $30 per child - each year for medical care as a consequence of the Chernobyl accident. Children also were offered free summer camps far from the radiation zone.
In mid-May 1986, the children of Kiev, 50 miles to the south of Chernobyl, were evacuated to camps where they stayed until August as a precaution.
Ivan Pivovarevich wouldn’t let his children go to camp, his daughter recalled.
After the accident, their friends began to leave Zhitkovichy. A dozen families from their church migrated to southern Russia to escape the radiation.
In all, 300,000 people left the Chernobyl area, including 85,000 ordered out of the “dead zone” near the reactor.
Spokane’s Pentacostals invited the Pivovareviches and several other families to emigrate.
The transition to a new country hasn’t been easy. The family is on welfare. Ivan Pivovarevich works part-time and struggles to learn English.
In their small house on North Magnolia, Vera Pivovarevich, 48, cares for the youngest of their 11 children, including 3-year-old Yevgeni, born in Spokane.
The children have adapted the best. They are quick to smile and speak fluent English.
The parents still worry that a similar accident could again happen at Chernobyl, where 6,000 people continue to work at two operating reactors.
“Nuclear power is bad. One accident can lead to another,” Vera Pivovarevich said.
The family has had no news of their town. Most of their friends are gone. Despite some sadness, they are not looking back.
“God let us out so we can live,” Ivan Pivovarevich said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo Graphic: Legacy of Chernobyl