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Downwinders Speak Out

Candles shine for faces of a cancer culture far from the public eye


One luminaria, “unknown,” represents the uncounted numbers of people who have
died of cancers in Tularosa and surrounding communities. More than 500 additional
luminarias were lighted during the candlelight vigil July 18 in Tularosa, each one
representing a known cancer victim. (Photo by Joan E. Price)

At first glance, historic Tularosa seems to be a sleepy little town with a charming variety of trees, gardens, flowers and alfalfa fields wrested away from the Chihuahuan desert. Many of the residents are made up of a tightly knit old community of related Hispanic families. Over 140 years ago, speaking a blend Indian Spanish language, their ancestors founded a safe haven on the Rio Tularosa far from the Confederate occupation of Mesilla on the Rio Grande. When statehood arrived in 1912, the residents brought up the American flag or left for Mexico.

While they succeeded in creating a true oasis in the desert, this oasis has been a dark center of swirling events including the most secretive and horrific experiment beyond imagination; a thunderous explosion and blinding light later called a “second sun” rose 45 miles to the northwest in the early hours of the vital monsoon season on July 6, 1945.

A silver cloud “like snow” covered the land stretching from Alamogordo to Claunch, an agricultural district of potatoes and pinto beans, from Carrizozo to Ruidoso while people marveled about the singular phenomenon — and went back to cultivating their home gardens, fields of corn, bean, squash and heritage chili and tending their livestock. After a few more weak storms, a 14-year drought set in. Many young Hispanic men left the failing farming homesteads for jobs in the recently integrated military. Tularosa has been in the middle from the beginning.

Henry F. Danley, a rancher, was on a military fire observation tower in the military that morning. When he reported the fiery explosion to the Holloman Fire Department, he was ordered to “not talk about it to anyone.” Others were told it was an ammunitions dump explosion. Many ranchers lost their livelihood in the ensuing expansion of military tests.

downwinders 2
From left, Natalie Guillen and Dennis Carroll film Tina
Cordova and Fred Tyler in 2012 explain the process of
gathering statistics about family cancer histories during
a Downwinders event in Tularosa gearing up to apply
for government compensation. (Photo by Joan E. Price)

In the Alamogordo Daily News of Aug. 9, 1945, readers found out about the bombing of Japanese cities “and in the big news, Alamogordo probably now is a heard of place to peoples all over the world, as the site of the final atomic-bomb test.” Five weeks later, during a visit to the ravaged site by Major Leslie R. Groves and Dr. J.R. Oppenheimer, the entourage was moved quickly along while “instruments the scientists carried determined that there was considerable emanation of destructive rays still going on” and that “these would gradually disappear.”

By early November, young cattle with color changes and texture in the fur were rounded up “from the C.M. Harbey range, 25 or 30 miles from the atomic test” while Alfred Hunter, cattle inspector for the State Sanitary Board for Otero and Lincoln counties, doubted that “radioactive fallout from such a nuclear explosion would harm man or beast.”

In January of 1946, the paper reported, “Government agents bought nearly 30 of the prematurely gray cattle and sent them to Oak Ridge, Tenn. for inspection (from) the Holm-Bursom ranch about 15 miles north of the bomb site.”

“We never even asked what happened,” said Beatrice “Bea” Martinez at the time of the 60th anniversary of the test. “Since we did not know what it was all about we were not scared.”

Cancer survivors in Tularosa talked among themselves for decades about their suspicions of exposure from the Trinity Test. Fred Tyler grew up in Tularosa ranking fourth in his graduating class at Tularosa High School in 1968. In 2005, he had recently retired from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service at Holloman Air Force Base. His mother, Ruthina Utter Tyler, born and raised in Tularosa, had endured three rounds of cancer of different types – now it was uterine cancer.

In a letter to the ADN in 2004, Tylor wrote, “I wonder (about) the tests at Trinity Site in 1945. I wonder if the tests there had anything to do with the numerous residents of Tularosa and surrounding communities who have contracted various forms of cancer. I think someone with the resources, or some entity like the American Cancer Society, should do a study to see if there are significantly larger numbers of cancers now than before July 1945. Perhaps the DoE or the U.S. government owes compensation to all these people even though most of them were not employees at the time of the Trinity Site test.”

Tyler’s letter got to Tina Cordova, 45, born and raised in Tularosa, valedictorian in her class of 1977. Cordova was an Albuquerque resident with a master’s degree in biology. She went on to medical school at the University of New Mexico. She started doing research looking up statistics on the internet under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for auto-immune diseases and cancers and found that in 1999, the national average was 202.7 per 100,000 people, but in Otero County, it was 694.6 and in Lincoln County it was 764.5 per 100,000 people.

“From year to year, the numbers are very consistent,” she said.

Cordova is a survivor of thyroid cancer. She said many people in Tularosa have thyroid problems. She started a list of cancers in her family and extended family with a growing realization that she could and needed to do something.

In 2005 Cordova and Tyler began organizing efforts in Tularosa and surrounding communities to complete a study of cancer in the area and the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium was initiated.

Tresa VanWinkle has family photos perched on her desk among the clutter of her downtown office in Alamogordo. She has lost numerous family members in the area to cancer.

"I look at what has happened to members of my family, and I wonder if we are the children of the bomb," VanWinkle tells visitors. She founded the Cancer Awareness, Prevalence, Prevention and Early Detection (CAPPED) center in Alamogordo.

“If no one is willing to do it we will have to do it ourselves. Eventually someone will listen to us,” Cordova said. “You put up a good fight or you give up and don’t look at why this is happening to me. People don’t know where to go. This is going to be a political process.”

Cordova, Tyler and others realized they were part of a much larger movement — and were invisible. The financial and personal impact on families was exhausting. A low income town of some 3,000 residents, one by one, individuals required care from long drives to Albuquerque or to local emergency clinics and the local clinic, and over all, encouraging suffering loved ones. The impact on the churches when the last rites are needed after sometimes long declines led to stoicism and prayers. Insurance was a great “blessing” but all too often that had not been the case.

“Our church bulletin each Sunday has about 30 people who died of cancer for about the last five years; there didn’t used to be cancer. But there has also been that publicity like aspartame sugar sweetener made from formaldehyde causes cancer too,” Tyler said.

Cordova brought a Washington D.C. health advocacy group into the effort. Physicians for Social Responsibility had “done a lot of work with Nevada downwinders to help to build a case,” for consideration for some sort of help from the 1990 Congressional Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, taking the first step towards compensating veterans of the United States’ nuclear weapons production and testing facilities for the ailments they developed as a result of their work. The program, as amended, provides lump-sum payments for sick uranium miners, millers, ore haulers, people present at nuclear tests and residents downwind from certain tests.

In December 2010, the Downwinders hosted a meeting to bring out the newly released Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) report, a reevaluation of the clandestine era during atomic testing and radiation exposures. The purpose of the meeting was for CDC to present its recommendations to the DOE as a result of the final LAHDRA report but few attended to hear that the exposures were 1000 times more than predicted by the scientists. The organizers refused to be deterred. As the TBDC project simmered, LAHDRA revealed that the Trinity Test Project took great effort to prepare for emergency evacuation of local residents if the detonation did not go according to planned radiation levels. They identified every ranch and homestead and “20 government agents were stationed in towns (including Tularosa) up to 100 miles from ground zero on shot day, equipped with recording barographs, seismographs, and recording radiation meters,” confirming the oral histories accounts of many old timers who had long since died. But the information was never collected and analyzed. Project Director General Leslie Groves often voiced fear of “the specter of endless lawsuits.”

While the scientists were monitored carefully, not even the most highly radiated ranch family, “an elderly couple ... with a young grandson, several dogs,” and 200 goats at Ratliff “hot canyon” Ranch were tested by field teams though they were visited several times during the two years following the extraordinary event that shook the Basin.

“I hate the fact that we have been treated as insignificant — scientists have been compensated but our community has been ignored,” Cordova said.

The LAHDRA project “located no analysis” of any samples or “risk assessments that address exposures” to the public “from inhalation or ingestion of radioactivity.”

H.L. Hempleman, a health physicist, published several reports used by LAHDRA. “A few people were probably overex-posed, but they couldn't prove it and we couldn’t prove it. So we just assumed we got away with it,” he said in retrospect.

The isolation began to turn as Cordova, Tyler and his wife Kathryn Brusuelas Tyler, Van Winkle and other supporters persisted, continuing to draw up petitions, collecting surveys, protesting at Trinity Site tours conducted each year by the military, contacting congressmen and following every possible lead to outreach and compensation for their families and villagers. They held a candlelight vigil each summer to honor the memory of their personal and disturbing legacy of grief. The participants began to have faces and reality to one another.

Several Congressional members rallied with Tom and Mark Udall and Jeff Bingamen to expand compensation to all New Mexicans under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2010.

TBDC finally got attention from outside journalists. Kathryn Brusuelas Tyler who now handles her husband’s outreach effort since he died last year, began a Facebook page under “Remembering Tularosa.” While the amended RECA amendments for compensation continue to die in committees, their struggle has been widely picked up in just the last year — hundreds of outlets from local television to CBS, the Military Times, and Al Jezeera America got their personal stories out during the 70th anniversary of the atomic test that left the American victims invisible — until now. The financial compensation would be a huge relief, say many with a newly grown strength of community. National recognition and compensation of radiation impacts of the Trinity Test is deep justice, a level of healing but more support continues to be needed.

Saturday evening, July 18, at 8 p.m., the seventh Candlelight Vigil was held at the Tularosa Little League Field to remember and honor over 700 victims of cancer deaths believed to be results of the Trinity Test. The event was organized by the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

Joan E. Price is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tularosa.


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