‘I am Become Death’ comes to Tularosa Basin: The Trinity Test 74 years later
July 16, 2019
“At the age of 11… 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…”
On this day 74 years ago, Henry Herrera witnessed the first ever nuclear detonation from his Tularosa home near Alamogordo, NM. The device would soon be the model for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. But on July 16, 1945, the Herrera family had no idea about the tragedy that the strange explosion would bring to Tularosa Basin.
The Trinity Test:
The Trinity Test at Alamogordo was the first of 528 nuclear weapon tests, either atmospheric or underwater. Like the tests that would follow, it caused irreversible damage to the environment and surrounding communities. Manhattan Project scientists designed the bomb and the test, but had no guarantee it would work. They speculated it would not detonate or, in their most anxious moments, that “our bomb ignites the atmosphere.”
After the test, Los Alamos Lab director Robert Oppenheimer wrote,“After the first flash, white as scalding milk, / blanched eyes dim in their sockets & grope toward / mortal sight, mere fire roiling in charred air. / Wind fists & lifts a cloak of desert dust / in billows & folds shrugged over scarlet / shoulders of flame. A botched shape slowly stands…‘I am become Death, / destroyer of worlds’…”
Years later, many expressed regret at the terrible scope of their invention. They had not foreseen its many implications and this is most obvious at the Trinity Test. The device was tested with no regard for the environment or surrounding communities, and they still suffer today.
Life in the fallout zone of the first ever nuclear weapons test:
The communities of the Trinity fallout zone call themselves the ‘Tularosa Basin Downwinders’ because radiation was carried downwind from the test site to their communities. Safety came second at the Trinity Test: the fallout zone was dramatically underestimated, the effects were barely studied, and no one was evacuated. Residents were not told about the test even as fallout ‘snowed’ over their farms, homes, and wells. The damage became clear almost immediately. In the months following Trinity (Aug, Sept, and Oct of 1945) infant mortality in New Mexico increased by 56%, many as a result of rare birth defects. Ionizing radiation is particularly damaging to rapidly developing and dividing cells—infants, children, and pregnant women. But when authorities were alerted, nothing happened.
Then, the rates of cancer began to climb in the Tularosa Basin. One Tularosa resident, Gloria Herrera, can list 285 people she knows who have died of cancer since the test. The effects are so long-lasting because ionizing radiation results in chromosomal abnormalities that make cancer more likely and can be passed on to the next generation. Downwinders born long after the test still experience high rates of cancer.
The fight for recognition :
Children like Henry saw the blast and thought the world was ending. Babies died without explanation. Downwinders can rattle off lists of loved ones with cancer, sometimes the majority of their family. But none of these consequences are recognized by the US government and Tularosa is not included in RECA (the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act). Like the residents of the Marshall Islands and the downwinders of the Nevada Test Site, the Tularosa Basin Downwinders have been forced into a grueling fight to expose the truth about America’s first nuclear weapons and to receive the healthcare they need.
Henry Herrera and two of his sisters are cancer survivors. His brother, niece, and nephew were all lost to cancer. Tularosa Basin knows the human cost of America’s nuclear weapons because they were the first to pay it. Their fight for healthcare and recognition continues through activism and research so that future generations of Downwinders will not suffer the same consequences.
In this spirit, ICAN is launching a series of articles that will explore the human and environmental consequences of nuclear stockpiles around the world. Stories like Tularosa exist everywhere that nuclear weapons are produced, tested, and disposed of because the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons have already happened—but not been recognized.