SANTA FE, Nex Mexico (Reuters Life!) - As a young American soldier during the Korean War, Jim Madrid remembers visiting Japan in 1950 and strolling amid the rubble left by the U.S. atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima five years earlier.
“These little kids came up and kicked me in the legs, yelling ‘Buta kitanai, buta kitanai’ — Dirty pig, dirty pig,” Madrid recalled. “Go home, go home,” they kept saying.
But what the children of Hiroshima did not know was that only days before the bomb exploded over their city, Madrid himself had been a victim of what, in essence, was a surprise nuclear attack by the United States on the residents of southern New Mexico.
“It was early morning on July 16, 1945,” Madrid told Reuters in a recent interview. “I was 13, and we were on our way to work at the (Holloman Air Force) base. The GIs there used to give odd jobs to kids, and my mother and brother worked in the kitchen.”
Madrid, now 78, remembers squeezing into a car with his brother Phil, his mother, who was driving, and two other women, and heading west from Alamogordo where the Madrids lived.
Shortly after crossing a railroad overpass, Madrid recounted seeing “this huge, huge light coming in from the north. It rose from the heavens, so bright, so extremely bright.”
The rising fireball was “the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life. It was rolling, getting fatter and bigger and taller.
“My mother said: “The sun is coming close. The world is coming to an end.” She told me to drop to my knees, but I kept looking. If it was the end of the world, I wanted to see it. I was waiting for God to come out from around the ball of fire.”
What Madrid and the others witnessed was the world’s first explosion of an atomic bomb, detonated at the Manhattan Project’s Trinity Test Site, about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, at what is now the White Sands Missile Range.
Madrid figures he was about 30 miles from the blast.
Madrid, who now lives in Denver, said “for weeks, or months and months, I’m not sure now” his vision was distorted and he could only see people and objects as if looking at an X-ray.
Though the negative vision eventually corrected itself, Madrid said his eyesight has remained poor ever since. He got headaches from looking at bright light and often would see double images.
Madrid also has been covered nearly head to toe with a skin rash which doctors have never been able to explain.
His mother and other relatives died of thyroid cancer.
Madrid recently joined dozens of other residents from counties near the test site for a July 16 observance of the 65th year anniversary of the Trinity blast organized by the Tularosa Downwinders Consortium.
Some 38,000 people lived within a 60-mile radius of Trinity, according to the 1940 census, but none received advance warning of the atomic test or the nuclear fallout that followed the blast, consortium leader Tina Cordova said. No one was evacuated.
Hundreds or even thousands of “downwinders” have suffered or died from radiation-induced cancers and other disease, and it is not unusual for families from the area to have lost several children to leukemia and other cancers, she said.
She said cancer rates in the counties near Trinity are four to eight times higher than national rates.
“My goal is to finally get compensation for these people who have suffered so much,” she said.
Long ignored by the government, residents often resort to bake sales to pay for medication, doctor visits and treatment, Cordova said. “We shouldn’t be standing here begging.”
The grievances of the Trinity downwinders are echoed in a 10-year health-risk study of the Trinity test and associated Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“Exposure rates in public areas from the world’s first nuclear explosion were measured at levels 10,000 times higher than currently allowed,” says a final draft of the study due for formal release this fall and posted on the CDC’s website.
“Ranchers reported that fallout ‘snowed down’ on local surfaces for days after the blast.”
The report also concludes that residents likely consumed radioactive material in their water, milk and home-grown vegetables. Herds of cattle and goats also were likely exposed to the extremely high rates of radiation, the study suggests.
Cordova said many of the exposed cattle made their way into local, regional and possibly national beef markets.
Over the years since 1990, Congress has enacted various pieces of legislation to provide compensation and health care assistance to residents of Nevada, Guam, the Marshall Islands and others who lived downwind from various above-ground nuclear weapons tests during the 1950s.
Trinity downwinders, however, have so far been left out of those measures.
In April, Tom Udall, the Democratic senator for New Mexico, introduced a bill that would expand coverage to the New Mexico residents, as well as additional downwinders in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. A similar measure was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Cordova called the Trinity downwinders “unknowing, unwilling and uncompensated participants in the world’s largest scientific experiment.”
What really hurts, Madrid said, is that southern New Mexico was chosen for the blast in part because “we were considered a ‘sparsely populated area,’” and expendable.
Editing by Steve Gorman