“Thanks to the bipartisan efforts of U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the Senate recently passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act making Trinity Downwinders, and communities in three other western states, eligible for recognition and compensation by the federal government. It is now up to congressional leaders to meet in conference and negotiate a final version of the bill.”
Of all the chores I had to do during summer visits to my grandmother Savina’s home in southern New Mexico, hauling water out of the cistern was my least favorite.
As a city kid, I was always puzzled by the fact that she still insisted on using rainwater for cooking and cleaning, even after my family had upgraded her house with indoor plumbing. But I knew better than to question the wisdom of a woman who had managed to lift her family out of rural poverty in the span of a single generation and conceded that maybe the tortillas she cooked on her wood-burning stove did taste better with fresh rainwater. It certainly never occurred to her that the rainwater in that cistern, along with most of the locally harvested food she used to sustain her large family, was likely contaminated as a result of the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon, which occurred 72 miles west of Savina’s home on July 16, 1945.
Pregnant at the time of the Trinity test, Savina was just one of an estimated half million people living within a 150-mile radius of the Trinity Site. But neither she nor anyone else in the area were evacuated or even warned about the possible long-term health effects associated with living in close proximity to a nuclear test site.
Unaware that irradiated dust and ash had been dispersed by a towering mushroom cloud rising more than 50,000 feet into the air, Savina did not know that even relatively low levels of radiation can be extraordinarily harmful to fetal development. So she went about her life, cooking and cleaning with water from the cistern, feeding her family with locally grown fruits and vegetables and offering daily prayers for members of her community, including the boys of the Hondo Valley who were still overseas serving their country.
Thirty-nine weeks after the blast, Savina gave birth to her sixth child, a girl, and almost immediately the family knew something was very wrong. Weak, sick and fussy, Savina cared for the baby day and night, but her condition steadily deteriorated. In time, lesions appeared all over her tiny body and my grandparents, desperate for answers, left their other children in the care of family and took their baby girl 50 miles to the nearest hospital, in Roswell. Doctors there were puzzled by Cecilia’s condition and, coming to no definitive diagnosis, could do nothing to save her. She died on September 19, 1946. She was 5 months old.
We will never know if Cecilia died because of the fallout from the Trinity Site, or if the high rate of cancer among my father’s remaining siblings and extended family is connected to that fateful day. The medical records of her hospital visit have long since vanished and the few remaining members of the family who cared for her are now in their 80s and can offer no more definitive account than the fading recollection of a baby girl covered in sores and crying out in pain.
Now, 78 years after the first nuclear detonation in human history, Congress has another chance to do the right thing. Thanks to the bipartisan efforts of U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the Senate recently passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act making Trinity Downwinders, and communities in three other western states, eligible for recognition and compensation by the federal government. It is now up to congressional leaders to meet in conference and negotiate a final version of the bill.
Of course this moment comes too late for Savina. She passed away in 2009. The cistern is covered up now and the little blue house sits empty, a monument to a simple way of life familiar to farmers and ranchers in this corner of New Mexico, many of whom are still suffering from cancer like their parents and grandparents before them.
Tough, proud and self-reliant, they don’t ask much from their government but, like Savina, they place a premium on honesty and respect. It is long past time for their government to do the same and offer some measure of comfort to the first community on this planet to bear the burden of mankind’s leap into the nuclear age.
An aerial view at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945. A Senate amendment to a national defense bill would make Trinity Downwinders eligible for compensation 78 years after the world’s first atomic explosion.