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Chuck Wing, Deseret News
Blaine Johnson talks about a 1980 Life magazine story on the downwinders of southern Utah. Johnson's daughter, Sybil, died at age 12 from cancer likely caused by Nevada nuclear tests.

ST. GEORGE — It's an exquisite fall day in Utah's southernmost corner, and Michelle Thomas takes an appreciative look around this green space to which she has returned before exiting her car with the deliberateness of a person soaking in her environment. She greets visitors cheerily.

"Welcome to the home of my family and friends!"

And the irony of her comment is only clear under consideration of the contrast this place holds:

That magnificent Washington County, feature of spectacular scenic postcards and landscape legends, was also the place where the U.S. government's own Atomic Energy Commission perpetuated some of the nation's ugliest health and environmental atrocities;

That Thomas' intentioned movement from her car isn't really that at all, but the degenerative repercussions of a muscle disease that is winning the battle over her legs and body;

And that her cheeky call — "Welcome to the home of my family and friends!" — could have come from a garden or a porch or patio, but it doesn't. It comes from the city cemetery.

"Utahns have experienced an epidemic of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses as a result of radioactive fallout from U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) nuclear weapons testing in the Fifties and Sixties. AEC's dishonesty and manipulation of information are indelible lessons. We are painfully aware of the risks we face from high-level nuclear waste." — Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Nov. 9, 2000, in a letter to the Minnesota Public Utility Commission opposing Private Fuel Storage LLC's proposal for a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Utah.

They were bombs with names like Morgan, Charleston and "Dirty Harry" that showed themselves in faraway flashes, in the snowy ash they left behind and in reverberations that rumbled through southern Utah towns of St. George, Cedar City and Parowan like a freight train through the living room. Ninety-three atom bombs were detonated in the Nevada desert between 1951 and 1963. Nearly one-third of these were bigger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The arid western site was chosen, because as long as winds were blowing east, the fallout avoided big cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles and traveled over sparsely populated areas of southeastern Nevada and Utah instead.

But as pink clouds of fallout passed, rural residents sucked in their powdery, radioactive dust. It fell on their skin, it leeched into the ground and into the vegetables they ate. Many got sick and died right away. Others got cancers later.

Later, the federal government stopped the tests, and reluctantly admitted its responsibility for these illnesses.

But for the people who lived in these towns — moms and dads, farmers, teachers, businessmen and schoolkids — the toxic inheritance of these bombs still pays heavy interest today.

Four and five decades after bombs lit the sky 130 miles from Utah's Washington County, their heirs come today in cancers and tumors, in an impermeable mistrust of government and safety, and in the memories of bloody tears shed by children who died because of these atomic blasts.

"People who live here and go to funerals every week, we can't sit here and talk about it like we're talking about broccoli." — Michelle Thomas, 48, St. George.

It takes Thomas several minutes to walk a few yards over to her parents' grave site.

Her legs are heavy against the drag of thick cemetery grasses. The crippling disease is paralyzing her muscle groups, and although her brain asks her leg to lift and move forward, the muscles muster only a bumpy ride along the ground for her feet. One at a time, slow, slow.

Finally she arrives at the grave site of Irma Selina Nelson Thomas, the legendary anti-nuclear bomb activist who died in 1991. Thomas' mother. Her father Hyrum is here also, indeed everywhere she turns is a grave site that radiates memories and frustrations about the government's 12-year run of atomic tests.

"My aunt and uncle, there," Thomas directs her cane to the west. "They were downwinders. And my cute cousin over there too. . . .

"And those kids," she says, now gesturing to the north. "Didn't they have leukemia or was it Hodgkin's?" She's asking herself questions now, mentally running through decades of faces and cancers and illness.

She is emotional. Years and years of living with her own sicknesses and the poor health of others are taking their toll. "It's the constancy of it," Thomas says. "Every time I go out, I see someone else my age that's dying."

"My mom had a big chart and within a three-block radius it was amazing how many people got cancers. The Reichmans, the Freis, the Hafens, the Bradshaws, the Thompsons. Then there were cluster births and cases of sterility and Down's Syndrome. She tracked it all and marked it with an X on the map. When I got diagnosed with my muscle disease, she put an X on our house." — Michelle Thomas

Back when she was a child, Thomas did not appreciate her mother's crusading. Irma Thomas talked about dangers from the bombs incessantly. She wore rubber gloves and a mask and rewashed her sheets if they were out on the line when a fallout cloud passed.

"Everyone thought she was a lunatic," her daughter says now.

As it turns out, she had a right to be.

Michelle Thomas was born in 1952, at the height of the tests, and her medical troubles started soon as a teenager. As student body vice president at Dixie High School, ovarian cysts caused her to double over in pain between classes.

Shortly after, illness struck again. Thomas was a dancer and member of Dixie's Jetettes drill team, but later in high school, she complained of extreme fatigue. She was falling down, having trouble with her balance. She was eventually diagnosed with polymyositis, an autoimmune disease that has a degenerative effect on muscles tissue.

But Thomas' medical ailments were far from over.

It was 1993, and Thomas was enrolled and ready to start the masters of social work program at the University of Utah when doctors found breast cancer. Hopes for the degree faded. "On the day I would have started the program, I had a mastectomy instead." Six months of chemotherapy followed surgery and radiation came after that.

The cysts, the muscle disease, the cancers. She calls these her "fallout cards."

"Everyone in St. George has one, and many people have multiple cards."

Like other inquiries through the years, a visitor asks why she doesn't just move. Get away from the memories and the poisons she sees everywhere.

"If I were healthier, I would move," she says. "Besides," she adds, "me and the sheep were here first."

She is an upbeat person by nature, but the dull thump of worry about what's next never lets up.

Three months ago, doctors detected precancerous cells in her salivary glands.

"That was the darkest moment of my life," said Thomas. Salivary gland cancer is extremely deadly and recognized by the government as a fallout-related disease. Now a delicate scar marks the area where part of her salivary system was removed. Talking about it makes Thomas cry. She's clearly tired.

She is sure someday she will die of illness directly or indirectly related to the pink skies under which she played as a child. She believes the radioactivity pervades the soil, the air, the cells of generations who have lived here since the winds blew downwind.

Sometimes she feels like she's just waiting. Cysts, then her muscles, then breast cancer, and now salivary gland cancer.

"I just thought, 'Oh my Godfrey, I just can't do this. Don't take me piece by piece.' "

"Back then we were told by the government to build bomb shelters, that the Russians might bomb us. Meanwhile our own government is bombing the hell out of us 130 miles away. The irony of that is just too rich." — Michelle Thomas.

The Washington Post article from 1965 was the first to say what many had suspected. "Schoolchildren downrange from the Nevada nuclear test site show nearly twice as many thyroid abnormalities as found in schoolchildren generally."

Then in 1997, the National Cancer Institute, under pressure from activists and the media, released findings from a study Congress ordered in 1982 that showed all Americans in the 1950s had been exposed to at least some iodine-131 from atomic bomb tests.

According to the findings, 10,000 to 75,000 of them could develop thyroid cancer from it — if the iodine-131 they absorbed, mostly by drinking milk, causes cancer the same way it does when bombarding people through X-ray exams or other external sources.

"We were assured that the bombs would not have any toxic effects. There were articles in the paper. There were civic meetings. Military leaders came to speak, and they all said not to worry about a thing. It was all safe." — Blaine Johnson, of St. George, whose daughter Sybil died at age 12 of acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Then and now, everyone knows the golden-haired child as Sybil D.

It's been 35 years since her parents saw her last, lying at peace finally after all the months of sickness and exhaustion. After that last week when her body oozed and wept in a futile effort to heal itself, when Loa and Blaine Johnson could not bear to bring their child one more time to Salt Lake City, where doctors would drill again into her breast and hip bones for marrow tests.

Sybil D.

Now 82 and 85 respectively, Loa and Blaine still refer to their little girl that way.

She was a little taller than average, and she had beautiful hair, a perfect blend of red and gold, touched with "just enough curl to add a little grace," according to her dad.

She was the peacemaker among her four siblings, two of whom were elementary age during atomic tests. All of whom were ushered outside school classrooms to watch the pink fallout clouds pass overhead. She was learning to play the cello. She taught her brother ballet. She united a group of girlfriends — Liz , Lynette, Janice, Ardis and Terry — who still deliver flowers to her grave today.

"She mothered everybody," says Loa, who remembers most details of those days nearly 40 years ago. Memories that don't come easily are jogged by a dusty box of memorabilia and a scrapbook:

  • Sybil dancing with red records at 18 months old.

  • A pencil drawing of Mary and Jesus, and a sleepy green watercolor of a tree painted in the fifth grade.

  • The Iron County Record newspaper article dated April 23, 1964, that listed all of the Johnson children in the Piano Ensemble Festival. It was two months before Sybil was diagnosed.

Soon after, the girl was so exhausted, she'd come home after school and go directly to bed. She'd get up for dinner then sleep again until morning. This went on for weeks.

Back on June 26, 1964, when Dr. L.V. Broadbent first saw the pale, lethargic 11-year-old in his Cedar City offices, the community had a different awareness of all things toxic: Pesticides, it seems, were poisonous. Fallout from nuclear tests were not.

A medical report about Sybil's condition illustrates the irony profoundly.

In his evaluation, Broadbent notes Sybil's general lack of energy, her blood counts, the abnormal amounts of lymphocytes, thrombocytopenia and anemia.

But the girl had ingested only penicillin and medications for a respiratory infection. She took vitamins once a week. She lives in Cedar City, he wrote, drinks city water and has a healthy pet. The fruit trees at the family home were sprayed in May, but Sybil was not exposed, nor has she had exposure to cleaning solvents or insecticides, the report states.

"She has had no toxic exposure."

Name of deceased: SYBIL DESERET JOHNSON

Date of death: May 15, 1965

Death was caused by: Acute leukemia

Age: 12

Usual Occupation: Student

Blaine and Loa Johnson say now they were slow to understand the relationship between illnesses in the community and the fallout.

In the early 1970s, Loa Johnson got involved with former Gov. Scott Matheson's Committee of Survivors. "The first thing I knew, my phone was ringing off the hook," she said. She kept a tablet by her phone back then, and she still has the faded pages nearly 30 years later. "It really is amazing," she says, looking at the names before her:

Edith Pryor's son, cancer of the reproductive system; pharmacist Mel Cowley, cancer; John Crabtree, leukemia; hairdresser Melva Parker, cancer.

Marva Stone. Alice Batt. Neddy Baldwin. Iris Adams . . .

"Were people mad? After a while, they were very angry," said Loa Johnson. "Part of what made them angry was that the tests were centered so close to people who no one thought mattered."

"Now I go back and watch those newsreels and I hear them say, 'This is no big deal for southern Utah.' 'It's routine.' 'It's part of their lives,' as if they are trying to minimize and make it OK. Perhaps they didn't know, but I think they did. They knew what the bomb had done to the Japanese." — Blaine H. Johnson, 51, a retired orthopedic surgeon who was a child living in Cedar City at the time of the nuclear tests.

More members of the Johnson family have been touched. Through the years, Blaine Sr. had malignant cancer on his parathyroid removed and the couple's middle son Bruce, had cancerous glands in his parathyroid removed.

"There's a difference between knowing for sure and believing they are too coincidental not to be," Blaine Johnson said.

The government has acknowledged Sybil was a victim of winds from the tests. Decades later, many residents of Cedar City and St. George are on a list to be formally compensated for their illnesses and hardship, but the government has allocated little money to pay.

The $50,000 the Johnsons received does little to alleviate the painful memories of Sybil's last weeks.

"We'll all go on a trip," the family told Sybil the summer of 1964. "Anywhere you want." She chose Disneyland and Laguna Beach because she'd been there before and loved the ocean, the waves and the sand. Heavily dosed with prednazone, Sybil was a bundle of energy. It was a good trip, her father recalls.

A month or two later, after school started, the cancer returned. Blaine wrote about it in the family history of Blaine Hart Johnson and Loa Claire Mathews.

"From there on, from the time we played together in Southern California, it was downhill all the way for Sybil D. Little by little she lost some of her wholeness."

Over the next months, she gradually lost her reflexes, then her balance. She began to fall a lot. She returned week after week to doctors in Salt Lake City. More examinations, more transfusions, more of the painful bone marrow tests where doctors drilled into Sybil's breast and hip bones with no anesthesia.

In the last days, Sybil had just returned from Salt Lake City and had just fallen into bed, exhausted, when doctors called again and wanted her to come back.

"They wanted to do another transfusion and another bone marrow test," Blaine Johnson said. "At that point I said no more bone marrow tests. They were too painful."

Soon after, Loa woke in the middle of the night to quiet. Without the rattling sound of her daughter's breathing, Loa Johnson knew Sybil was gone.

Then and now, the girl's death leaves her family and friends stunned.

"The day before her funeral, her girlfriends came by," Blaine Johnson said quietly.

"I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, and they just sat there. They didn't say anything. They just sat there on the couch and cried, and pretty soon they got up and left."

"The societal impact of this is the emotional scars it has left. When someone dies, that's about as bad as it gets, but the emotional scars left on the survivors and the families. There can be no price attached to it. It's like taking a Holocaust victim and asking how they can be compensated." — Denise Nelson, director, Support and Education for Radiation Victims (SERV)

Anytime Dennis Nelson feels an ache, he sees the beginning of the end.

Twice Nelson has fought basal cell-carcinoma, better known as skin cancer. Twice doctors have caught the cancer, common among those who lived downwind of atomic tests, and twice he's hoped to be done with doctors and hospitals.

Atomic testing began in 1952 when Dennis was 8. His sister Margaret was born that year, at the height of fallout exposure. Dennis left Cedar City in 1958 and spent his career as a Navy physical chemist, but his toxic exposure goes back to his childhood in Utah, where he slept outdoors under a mulberry tree in summer and spring, and ate out of a garden irrigated by a runoff from gutter water rife with fallout dust.

He remembers that teachers collected students' baby teeth in those days. Kept them in a jar sitting on the window sill. He now knows they were testing for a kind of radiation that collects in the bones and the teeth.

The Nelsons lived in St. George through the 1940s until 1958, and their family has been plagued with cancers of all kinds. In a family of two adults and five children, there were seven different kinds of cancer.

"None of these people, when they were alive, were told the truth," says Denise Nelson, who is married to Dennis Nelson and is director of SERV, Support and Education for Radiation Victims, a nonprofit agency based in Bethesda, Md.

After a long illness, Dennis' sister, Margaret Nelson died.

One of the Nelson brothers had leukemia, survived and now has bladder cancer. Their mother, Hattie, died at age 47 of a brain tumor in 1966. Her son, Pershing Nelson, Washington County attorney during the testing, died of lung and bone cancer, neither of which was formally recognized as a fallout related illness and compensatable back then.

She was a meticulous attorney for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City. Born in 1952 in the bombings early days, Margaret Nelson died of colon cancer at 40.

"At that time, colon cancer was not compensatable, now it is," said Denise Nelson. "Compensation. This is a word that is supposed to make things good and set things straight. But the government has never come out and said these people were experimented on — that St. George was the largest outdoor experiment in the nation.

"It's a sin."

One of Denise Nelson's greatest heartaches surrounds the injustice perpetuated by a government that did not tell people the true reasons for their deaths.

"I think that is something that is totally overlooked in this discussion. These people were lied to and told — while they were dying — that they were wrong," Nelson said. In Margaret Nelson's last few weeks, she wanted desperately to keep up with news of how the legislative bill to compensate Downwinders was moving through Congress. But her body was a frail 80 pounds by then, and she was too weak to read, so Margaret asked her sister-in-law to read the bill to her, Denise Nelson remembers. When Denise got through the text, Margaret was quiet, then made a final request of her sister-in-law.

"She was emphatic," Denise Nelson said. "She told me, 'Don't let them forget what they did.' "

"I was asked to speak at a conference in New York in August 1987. I looked at it as a free trip, but when I got there, there were people from all over the world who had the same stories. There was a guy from Hanford, some people from Savannah River where Three Mile Island happened, from Rocky Flats . . . . I was blown away, and I thought I am never going to go home and be a guinea pig or be silent again." — Claudia Peterson, St. George.

Claudia Peterson's was a Norman Rockwell upbringing just outside Cedar City in all respects but a few.

Born in 1955, she had a great childhood, she says, played outside like every other kid, went to East Elementary against the mountain on the east side of town. The family lived out of their own gardens — raised their own meat, drank raw milk from the neighbor's cows.

"We were getting it from every direction and didn't know it," she says now reflecting on her exposure to radioactive fallout.

As she looks back on things now, there were certainly oddities in an otherwise staid community.

She remember seeing piles of dead lambs at the neighbors' house and thinking that was normal. Then a group of men in black dress suits came to her school one day with Geiger counters. One man waved the hand wand across her throat with the mechanism.

"It was beeping up a storm," Peterson said. "I was proud. I thought, 'Oh, I made it go off.' I asked the man what it meant and he said it showed I had had dental X-rays. But my mother was a nurse. She knew and I knew I'd only been to the dentist a couple of times."

Forty years later, Peterson still remembers the huge orange ball that came up in the west horizon. She and her friends thought it was a flying saucer, then it dissipated into a huge cloud. Now she knows she should have been terrified by what she saw in the sky, but back then, few were. "We just didn't dwell on it."

As she looks back, the family-focused communities of southern Utah were perfect victims for the circumstances. "We trusted the government. We never would have spoken out, we were patriotic," she says.

"We were actually the perfect guinea pigs."

And Peterson was one who suspected nothing until a couple of her classmates died. Darwin Hoyt, a year younger and so cute. He lost his hair, all but a couple of sprigs, she says, and Bruce Stone got bone cancer and had to have part of his leg amputated. Her best friend's mother died a terrible death of colon cancer. There was a lot of talk about the herds of dead sheep over to the west.

But it wasn't until Peterson was grown, when her own little Bethany got so sick, that Peterson knew the true toll of the tests.

First, 3-year-old Bethany cried out each night from pain in her legs. And her tummy hurt, she told her mom.

Doctors couldn't tell what was wrong, but finally a St. George orthopedist told Claudia Peterson her daughter had a virus that had settled in her joints. A few nights later, the girl woke screaming in her sleep. Dismissed by an emergency room doctor and another physician in the next two days, the girl's pain raged on.

Peterson and her mother finally drove Bethany to Salt Lake City in the middle of the night. "Something is wrong with this child and no one is helping us" she yelled to the emergency room staff when they arrived at Primary Children's Medical Center.

The next day, the girl was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma, a germ cell malfunction that created a tumor the size of an orange in her belly.

For two years Claudia and Philip Peterson made the five-hour drive to Primary Children's every week for Bethany's chemotherapy. Afterword, Bethany, normally so feisty and mischievous, would be drugged, exhausted, vomiting non-stop.

By 4, Bethany's world became a parade of doctors and medicine. She would play with her dolls and lovingly offer "five cc's of Vincristin." She knew the name of every medicine and had adjusted to their impact on her small body, Claudia Peterson said. "She would puke on her way out to play."

She lost her hair but never wore a wig. People on the street thought she way a boy.

"I'm not a boy, can't you tell?" Bethany would correct. "I have cancer and I'm getting chemotherapy."

Mom and Dad were trying to maintain composure for Bethany and the other two children, but Peterson sighed remembering the hardship on the family.

"I was barely holding it together. I had a sick child, my father had just died, my grandparents had died and I had a sister with six kids who was dying too," Peterson said. "I was trying to be so together, and inside I was just screaming."

At the time, she was trying to keep her daughter double-covered in insurance by putting in 20 hours a week as a checker at Albertson's grocery store. Bethany's dad, Philip, still works as finance director for the city of St. George.

Bethany was in remission and off treatment by fall 1987. Her hair had grown back, and the girl was excited about returning to school. She'd bought all her new school clothes and was attending first grade at Sunset Elementary on the day her nose started bleeding and wouldn't stop.

Doctors confirmed acute monoblastic leukemia.

"I curled up on the bed and cried all day," Peterson said. "It tore at my heart. It's bad enough when they're babies, but now I had a 6-year-old saying to me, 'I don't want any more pokes.' She knew what she was in for."

The same day, Claudia's sister Cathy — hospitalized with terminal melanoma cancer the family believes is fallout-related — fell into a coma.

"The day my sister died, I crawled up on the hospital bed with Cathy and told her, 'You've got to come get Bethany when it's time to go.' She was in a coma, but I know she heard me."

Bethany watched everything intently at Aunt Cathy's funeral. The next week she talked about dying and seeing Jesus and dogs in heaven. With her sweet 6-year-old words, she comforted her mother.

She deteriorated quickly at the end. Her blood was poisoned. Doctors pumped blood and platelets into her as fast as they could. She was in excruciating pain.

The day before she died, Bethany had a 105-degree fever and tears bloody with the sepsis that eventually took her over. In a quiet moment, the girl looked past her mother sitting at her bedside. Her red eyes spotted something beyond. "Look Mom, there's Aunt Cathy dancing on the table."

The next day, Bethany was gone.


E-mail: lucy@desnews.com