Who Is Vasily Ignatenko? New Details On The Real Life Firefighter Featured In HBO's 'Chernobyl'

He gave his life.

Who Is Vasily Ignatenko? New Details On The Real Life Firefighter Featured In HBO's 'Chernobyl' ChernobylPlace.com

When disasters like the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl take place, the consequences can be devastating. People lost their lives and even those who were fortunate enough to initially survive would experience devastating illness and other serious misfortunes. Still, it's important that we remember the past so that we don't repeat our oldest and most deadly mistakes. 

HBO's recent miniseries, Chernobyl, examines just this fact, and the effect is captivating and hard to watch all at the same time. The show features characters inspired by people who actually were there when the disaster happened. One of those people was Vasily Ignatenko who tragically lost his life. This is his story. Who is Vasily Ignatenko?


1. Who Was He?

Vasily Ignatenko wasn't just a character that HBO's heavyweights invented for their limited series, Chernobyl. He was a real life firefighter. At the age of just 25, he was one of the first responders to the scene. Tragically, he died just 14 days after being removed from the scene from being exposed to such massive levels of radiation. But the tragedy of Vasily's life isn't simply that he died in a horrible, painful way in the hopes of doing some small amount of good for others. Another huge part of the story and one that was prominently showcased on Chernobyl was that his wife Lyudmila wouldn't leave his side after the accident, putting herself (and their unborn child) in a tremendous amount of danger. 


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2. Newlyweds

For his wife, it was a particularly crushing blow, for obvious reasons. The couple only just married when the tragedy at Chernobyl took place. “We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, ‘I love you.’ But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea,” she said in Voices of Chernobyl.


Life, before she lost her husband, wasn't exactly ideal, but in the 1980s in Russia and seen through the haze of young love, Lydumila and Vasily were happy. They lived in a dorm connected to the local firehouse. They shared a kitchen with three other couples who also lived there. His wife still remembers Vasily telling her to go to sleep and that he would be home soon. 

3. No Idea

The most galling part about Chernobyl, in my opinion, isn't the loss of life or the carelessness, it was the total lack of understanding. Even professionals like Vasily had no idea just how bad the disaster was, let alone the possible impact it would have on his health. Prior to heading to the scene, he told his mother, “I won’t be back for a while.” She never saw him again. 


Reflecting on the disaster, Lyudmilla is still in shock thinking about the fact that none of the firefighters had any protection from the radiation at all. “They tried to beat down the flames. They kicked at the burning graphite with their feet…They weren’t wearing their canvas gear. They went off just as they were, in their shirt sleeves. No one told them," she said.

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4. His Death

His death was painful and haunted his wife. She said: “He was producing stools 25 to 30 times a day, with blood and mucus. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there’d be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: ‘It’s convenient, you don’t need a comb.’ Soon they cut all their hair,” she said. “I tell the nurse: ‘He’s dying.’ And she says to me: ‘What did you expect? He got 1,600 roentgen. Four hundred is a lethal dose. You’re sitting next to a nuclear reactor.'”

In the HBO series, while Vasily's death is chronicled they don't do so in nearly such graphic detail as his wife remembers. That's not the only difference, either. At Vasily's real-life funeral, after his body was interred, a truck came to pour down zinc on his coffin to prevent the spread of further radiation, that's how toxic his body was considered to be.

5. The Shoes

While HBO didn't follow the real-life story of Vasily in all of its detail, they did make sure to honor the man and other characters based on people who actually died because of or were otherwise affected by the disaster at Chernobyl. One of the ways they did this was by portraying Lyudmila clutching a pair of Vasily's shoes at the funeral, something she actually did. 


According to Vasily's wife, the shoes had a special meaning to her. She said, that “when he died, they dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn’t get shoes on him because his feet had swollen up. They buried him barefoot. My love.” How is that for utterly heartbreaking? 

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York with her cats, Batman and Margot. She's an experienced generalist with a passion for lifestyle, geek news, pop culture, and true crime. For more of her work, check out her Tumblr