In 1986, three men volunteered to die in order to save hundreds of thousands of people, but most of us have never heard of these unsung heroes.
When a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine began releasing deadly radioactive material, workers didn’t know what to do. No one could figure out how to stop the disaster without killing themselves in the process. To make matters worse, the plant was in danger of exploding at any moment.
The only way to prevent the explosion was to enter the toxic radioactive water and release a valve. Robots were unable to function in the radioactive water, so it would have to be done by a human.
Three courageous men, knowing full well that this was a death mission, volunteered. Alexi Ananenko, Valeri Bezpoalov and Boris Baronov put on a brave face and their scuba gear. They then dove into the contaminated water and succeeded in releasing the valve. A nuclear meltdown was avoided and hundreds of thousands of people’s lives were saved in exchange for three lost.
Just a few days later, all three men died a difficult death from radiation poisoning. They were buried in lead coffins, which were soldered shut to prevent their bodies from leaking radiation into the soil. They became known as the “Chernobyl Suicide Squad.”
Even scientists are baffled by rare cases of people who ignore their survival instinct. Humans are hard-wired to survive, but heroes ignore the biological voice inside that yells “protect your own life!”
While we sometimes hear stories of parents who sacrifice themselves for the life of a child, this too could be seen as the human instinct to survive. Our children are part of us and through them our genes survive. In the case of Chernobyl, many people might have packed their family up in a car and sped away from the danger as fast as they could.
What makes people like Ananenko, Bezpoalov and Baronov different?
Andrew Carnegie spent his life studying heroes. Since 1904, his Hero Fund has recognized more than 80,000 people for acts of pure selfless heroism.
One interesting thing that Carnegie found was that heroes usually don’t see their actions as “heroic” at all.
“I’ll bet you won’t find a single example of a person who says, ‘Yes, I’m a hero,’” says Professor Earl Babbie.
Instead, heroes usually believe they did what anyone else would have done, risked their own life for the life of someone else.