Tears glistened in Loa Johnson's eyes as she pressed a handkerchief to her cheek. "Good night, it's been 25 years," she said. "But - you don't quit missing them."
Johnson and her husband, Blaine, were reliving the terrible months that led to the death of their daughter, Sybil D. Johnson, at the age of 12 in May 1965. She died of leukemia.According to a ruling in 1984 by U.S. District Chief Judge Bruce S. Jenkins in Salt Lake City, fallout caused Sybil's death. Fallout blanketed parts of southern Utah, northern Arizona and western Nevada during the period of America's open-air nuclear bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, from 1951 to 1963.
Despite Jenkins' ruling, none of the 1,100 people who joined in a wrongful-death lawsuit, including the Johnsons, ever received any compensation for their suffering. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, then the Supreme Court, threw out Jenkins' decision on the grounds that the government's nuclear testing was part of national security - and when it acts in the name of national security, the government can do no wrong.
Today, victims and their relatives are again thinking over the tragedies that indelibly marked their lives. Congress recently passed, and President Bush signed, a law to pay damages for the fallout-induced cancers and offering an official apology. So far, no funds have been appropriated for the payments.
The Johnsons, retired music teachers who taught at Southern Utah State College in Cedar City, once again live in St. George, where they resided in the late 1940s. They were in Cedar City from 1951 to 1981, throughout the time of the nuclear testing.
"I remember the children being taken outside in the elementary schools . . . to see the pink-white clouds going over," Blaine Johnson said. Those clouds were fallout from the test site.
Loa Johnson recalled that the government told residents at the time that "it was making history."
Blaine Johnson said he would go on top of a college building to watch the nuclear blasts, which often were fired at dawn at the Nevada Test Site, about 175 miles southwest of Cedar City. A veteran of World War II and Korea, he compared the distant nuclear explosion to artillery fire.
"We would see the flash and see how long it took the sound to get here," he said. "Somewhere around 13 or 14 minutes . . . It was large enough that it shattered the glass windows."
When the concussion from the blast hit the large, thin glass panes of windows at the college, the windows broke.
That was in the early 1950s, around the time Sybil was born, he said.
"We weren't worried about it because the government said this was perfectly safe," Loa Johnson said.
"We were assured it would not be harmful," her husband added. "If it had been harmful and they had told us, I'm not sure we could have done anything about it. What would we do about it? We couldn't go running off to Idaho."
He believes the test planners would wait until the wind was blowing toward the northeast, toward southern Utah, before the shots were fired. That would keep radiation away from Las Vegas and the big cities of Southern California.
In the spring of 1964, Sybil came down with what seemed to be a flu that she couldn't shake. Eventually the ailment was diagnosed as leukemia. Every Friday, her mother would drive her to a hospital in Salt Lake City for treatments and an examination, and drive her home on Saturday.
The exams were extremely painful because the doctors had to take bone marrow samples by drilling into Sybil's breastbone or hip. She also had massive doses of chemotherapy.
"She started losing her hair," her father said. "She lost all of her reflexes . . . She stumbled over the least little crack in the floor or concrete."
"Oh, she hated those trips," Loa Johnson said. "Well, she was miserable. You don't like to get in a car when you're sick and drive 265 miles and go see a doctor. You go sit in that ugly old dark uncomfortable hall and wait and wait and wait."
To add insult to injury, the medical staffers were upset if the Johnsons were a few minutes late.
Blaine Johnson took up the story. "We'd put her in bed when she got home. She was always so glad to get into bed - it was nice and warm."
He remembered her last trip to the hospital, this time in Cedar City, for a double transfusion. Shortly afterward, she came down with chicken pox.
Sybil "actually died of that. There was a terrible fever," he said. It was May 15, 1965.
During the trial before Jenkins, Dr. John W. Gofman, San Francisco, a former associate director of the Atomic Energy Commission's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the author of basic works on radiation and human health, testified he thought southern Utahns received an average of 36.7 rads of full-body radiation during the testing period.
A rad is equivalent to about half a roentgen of radiation, about the maximum amount a person would be exposed to during a normal chest X-ray.
Gofman calculated the exposure to Sybil Johnson's bone marrow at 18.2 rads. The government's Off-Site Radiation Exposure Review Project estimated it at 0.45 rads. Government experts said it was 0.5 roent-gens.
Jenkins wrote that it is probable that Sybil was exposed in the womb to fallout. "At the time of the heavier fallout from the seven tower shots and four air bursts of Upshot-Knothole . . . she was five to seven months old," he wrote. That series of detonations occurred from March to June of 1953. "Actually, within a 100-yard radius (of their home in Cedar City), 19 people came down with cancer of one kind or another," Blaine Johnson said.
Loa Johnson said, "It seemed to land in pockets." Three or four sections in Cedar City had heavy cancer rates, while other areas had little, she said.
Fallout monitors did stop some cars to wash them after heavy explosions, he said. "They knew there was danger."
But AEC officials never said "one blessed thing" about not eating home-grown vegetables or drinking milk from cattle that grazed on contaminated grass, he added.
Sybil's photo is kept on the couple's piano. Blaine Johnson said she had reddish-gold hair. Ironically, she was a peacemaker - smoothing over the little frictions that showed up with friends and family - while her country's preparation for war eventually killed her.
At the funeral, her older sister said that no matter how angry they got with her, she never got mad at them. Her little brother said, "I like to cuddle with Sybil D. but can't do that anymore."
IN FREDONIA, ARIZ., Nan Tait McCormick stood near the window of her paneled basement during a rare rain shower and tried to remember her father.
"I remember the funeral - not really understanding, and I didn't understand why Father died. Being the youngest, they protected me," she said.
She is the daughter of LaVier C. Tait, whose chronic myeloytic leukemia was diagnosed in August 1964. He died of the disease Sept. 13, 1965.
In 1984, Jenkins ruled that for Tait and some other adult leukemia victims, "The evidence in the record reasonably justifies the inference that it is more likely than not that fallout was a substantial factor contributing to the leukemia." He ordered payment of $240,000 to Va-Rene E. Tait, his wife, and $40,000 to each of their four children, including Nan McCormick.
Her father was a heavy-equipment operator. He worked in the logging industry in the nearby mountains, and for a time he was employed by the city of Fredonia. He also served as a justice of the peace.
Until 1977, when she was in high school and neighbors began organizing the radiation lawsuit, Nan McCormick did not understand that fallout was implicated in her father's death. In fact, she grew up hearing "you don't blame your government for things, you trust your government."
Since then, she has read books about the fallout-cancer connection. "It makes me angry," she said.
"They did know. They should have taken precautions. Why should anybody have a right to make me grow up without a father - and just sacrifice people's lives?"
In the small town where she was born, grew up and lives today, leukemia has taken an unusually high toll. "Our next-door neighbor died of leukemia also," she said. In fact, she has heard of four leukemia cases in the two-block area that includes her childhood home.
She was not surprised when Jenkins' decision was overturned. "I was always skeptical that it (the suit) was going to get anywhere at all, because it was the government. I thought they would get out of it."
Even today, after President Bush has signed the compensation measure, she said, "the money isn't there, and they might get out of it again."
The whole thing makes her mad, she said. "I think they could have taken precautions. . . . Nobody would have submitted to being a guinea pig."
She has three children, two girls and a boy. Her husband, Dennis, manages a service station. They have not told the children about the fallout's connection with their grandfather's death.
"They know he died when I was little, but we never talk about the radiation with them," she said.
She was only 5 when her father died. LaVier Tait is a dim figure in her past - the father she lost as a preschooler.
"No amount of money can bring back the lost, but admitting they did something wrong makes you feel a little bit better."
CLARON W. BRADSHAW believes government scientists covered up the danger of fallout when he lived in Cedar City during the above-ground nuclear testing. In the spring of 1953, thousands of sheep died mysteriously after wintering on grazing allotments near the Nevada Test Site.
"They'd put the Geiger counter on these sheep, and it would go out of sight - and they'd stand right there and they wouldn't admit it was that (radiation)," said Bradshaw. "It was ridiculous."
Speaking in his home in Bloomington Hills, near St. George, Bradshaw said his late wife, Verlynn, followed the fallout controversy closely. She helped organize the federal suit.
Verlynn Bradshaw died of breast cancer in 1986 at the age of 59, after two mastectomies. Their son, Jeffrey, had Hodgkin's disease; it is now in remission, his father said. Claims for both were filed in the suit.
Jeffrey Bradshaw's claim was chosen as one of 24 bellwether cases before Jenkins. His is among the 14 that were dismissed by the judge, while 10 were blamed on fallout.
Jenkins wrote that while a connection is possible between radiation and Hodgkin's disease, and that while Jeffrey was probably exposed in the womb to radiation from the Upshot-Knothole series of tests in the spring of 1953, as well as fallout from other tests through 1958, there wasn't enough documentation to support a claim for this kind of disease.
Meanwhile, the claim for Verlynn Bradshaw remained in the suit. She was not chosen as one of the bellwethers, but Jenkins did find that breast cancer is one of the diseases that were caused by the fallout.
The judge cited scientific literature that the female breast is one of the organs that is most susceptible to radiation-caused cancer. The average latency period for radiation-caused breast cancer, from exposure to diagnosis, he wrote, is 23.6 years.
Verlynn Bradshaw's cancer was diagnosed around 1978 - 25 years after the Upshot-Knothole series. She died in February 1986.
"Oh, she wasn't one that would really go all over and yell at the government like a lot of people, but I'm sure she believed that's what it was," Bradshaw said.
"She suffered quite a bit - chemotherapy," he said.
He is retired from the Bradshaw Ford Mercury dealership in St. George. Back in the 1950s, when the family lived in Cedar City, he was out of town frequently selling cars.
Back then, sometimes cars would be stopped and washed by government officials because particularly dense clouds of fallout had drifted across "old Highway 91" near the Test Site.
"One day when I was in Nevada they were washin' them all day, but they got done by the time I got through," he recalled.
"I was in Pahrump (Nevada) one day when I saw the mushroom - just like it looks on TV, just a big mushroom up in the air," he said.
He believes that might have been one of the days "when Jeff got contaminated." In Cedar City, "the atomic clouds came over," he added.
After the fallout furor started, his wife remembered that Jeff was outside playing on a sand pile when the cloud from one of the tests came through.
He was not surprised when the government won a reversal of Jenkins' decision. "When you stop and think about it, gee, they'd be deluged by thousands and thousands of claims," Bradshaw said.
Still, he believes that scientists conducting the atmospheric experiments knew of the danger. "They didn't stand up and admit what was happening and I'm sure they had to know," he said.
"They had scientists who knew. I'd say it was a cover-up."
"THE INDIVIDUALS in charge of these, who were calling the shots down in the Test Site, to me were murderers in the same mold of the guys who were running the death camps in Germany," Elmer Pickett said.
Pickett, interviewed in his store, Elmer's Home Center on West St. George Boulevard in downtown St. George, keeps a list of 15 Pickett family members or inlaws who died from or suffered from diseases that he blames on fallout.
He is a patriotic man who fought in Sicily, France and Germany during World War II. He once served as an LDS bishop.
His store carries garden hoses, baseball gloves, fan belts, shovels, paint, fencing material, nuts and bolts, faucets, bike tires, electrical wire and a key-cutting machine. A clipboard at one counter holds a sheaf of paper with the heading, "PROTECT OUR FLAG, sign petition for Constitutional Amendment."
The list of deceased or sick Picketts and relatives is on the back of the photocopied cover of a booklet published by the Atomic Energy Commission in January 1955, "Atomic Test Effects in the Nevada Test Site Region." All of the victims listed lived in Washington County during the 1950s, he wrote inside the photocopy.
"In researching family history on all lines, we cannot find a single case of cancer of any type prior to 1953," he had typed inside the photocopy.
The list on the back ranges from his first wife, Viola J. Pickett, who died of leukemia and Hodgkin's disease at age 38, to his sister, Inez P. Hughes, who died of lung cancer at age 53, to his grandmother, Emma S. Little, dead of thyroid-larynx cancer at 86.
There are 15 names. Since he typed it, he has had to add a few by hand.
He had the original of the pamphlet handy. It is a small yellow booklet, about 5 1/2 by 4 inches.
"This was printed in '55, when they very well knew what they were doing to us," he said. "And boy, the lies they told us."
Pickett read a section from the booklet. That page carried the following bland statement: "As the AEC has reported, no person in the nearby region has been exposed to hazardous amounts of radiation, even from this heavier fallout, and no crops or water supplies have been made hazardous to health."
"Well, that is a black lie," Pickett said.
"And there's a lot of other things just like that. They knew by then. They had lost the sheep," and the AEC knew that high levels of fallout hit St. George from the Harry shot of 1953 because Frank Butrico, one of its monitors, had been there taking radiation readings, he said.
Why call the AEC officials murderers? "What do you call a person who knowingly, knowingly, causes things to happen which takes lives - which they didn't need to do?" he said.
Viola Pickett's case was one of the many that were represented by bellwether claims in the fallout trial, and the leukemia victims were entitled to compensation, Jenkins ruled.
Pickett vividly recalled the tests that he now believes claimed Viola's life.
"The whole western sky would light up, and then somewhat later, I don't remember how many minutes, somewhat later we'd feel the earth shake." Then after that there would be a "kind of rolling" cumulus cloud.
"It was red like our hills here." The fallout would drop into pockets in St. George. "Dusted us," he said. "Really got us."
Viola was quite a milk drinker, and ate vegetables. She liked to work outdoors around the house, "with shrubbery and stuff." Any of these things might have exposed her to radiation.
After the "fast leukemia" was diagnosed, Viola went to a hospital in Salt Lake City for treatment. A medical practitioner there suspected fallout, saying that suddenly the hospital was inundated with leukemia and other types of cancer cases from southern Utah, he said.
Viola was able to leave the hospital for a few days at a time and stay with a niece in Salt Lake City.
The first symptom was an apparent flu that showed up at Christmas 1959. "It didn't seem to let up. She was still getting ever more flu symptoms."
By the time the disease was diagnosed, her intestinal tract was "full of it . . . by then it was foregone."
For a time after treatments started, she was able to rally. She looked and felt good.
"In fact, I've got a picture that was taken of her September that year - it was the last picture taken of her."
Looking through his wallet for a blowup of the picture, which was taken in 1960, he said, "Here's one of my sons, who's got thyroid problems."
Finding the black and white print, he said, "Oh, she was a beautiful woman."
In November 1960, the disease reappeared, worse than ever, big blotches all over her body. The doctor sent her to a hospital in Salt Lake City, where she died a week later.
She left her husband with six children, aged 2 1/2 to 17.
Asked how their mother's death affected the children, he said, "Well, I tell you the family took it very good. It was very hard. The truth is, if it hadn't been for our belief in our religion it would have been very rough."
Some time after Viola's death, the niece she stayed with in Salt Lake City told him Viola knew her illness was fatal. Just as he did, she tried to hide that from him. She thought her husband didn't know and she did not think he could take it.
"That's one thing that we regretted - that we never really opened up with each other . . . We never each knew the other knew.
"That's awful? It was."
In order to be eligible for compensation under the radiation victim law, signed Oct. 15, individuals must have lived within the fallout-struck portions of Utah, Arizona or Nevada for 24 months between Jan 21, 1951, when the first test was fired, and Oct. 31, 1958, plus July 1962, the periods during which bombs were exploded in the open air.
In Utah the affected counties are Washington, Iron, Kane, Garfield, Sevier, Beaver, Millard and Piute. In Nevada they are White Pine, Nye, Lander, Lincoln, Eureka and that portion of Clark County that consists of townships 13 through 16 at ranges 63 through 71. In Arizona, victims must have lived north of the Grand Canyon and west of the Colorado River.
They must have developed at least one of 14 primary cancers deemed to be caused by radiation, ranging from childhood leukemia to liver cancer. The cancers must have occurred at least two to five years (depending on type) after initial exposure to radiation. The following is a list of cancers for downwind victims which qualify under the provision:
- cancer of female breast
- cancer of esophagus
- multiple myeloma
- cancer of the thyroid
- cancer of the gall bladder
- pancreatic cancer
- cancer of the stomach
- cancer of the bile ducts
- cancer of the liver
- cancer of the small intestine
- cancer of the pharynx
- all must be primary cancers
The following radiation-related cancers qualify under the provision for miners:
- lung cancer
- pulmonary fibrosis
A leukemia boom in tiny Fredonia
In 1966, Dr. Clark Heath of the national Centers for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, wrote a report on leukemia rates downwind from the Nevada Test Site.
Fredonia, Ariz., had a population of 643 in the 1960 census. Based on that, he said, the expected number of leukemias would have been "0.2 case" in his study. In other words, one case of leukemia would be expected to show up in a town that small about every 25 years.
Instead, two residents fell ill with the disease in the spring and summer of 1960, and two more came down with leukemia in 1964. "This number of cases is approximately 20 times greater than expected," Heath said.
Although blood samples were taken, no viral or other contagious cause for the leukemia was ever discovered.
S.L. 'is right on the path,' author says
In 1979, a soil sampling program throughout Utah found elevated levels of radioactive plutonium and cesium remaining in the southwestern part of the state. They drop off north of St. George and then go up again in the Salt Lake Valley. Radioactive cesium is high around Ogden, too.
In "Under The Cloud," a book by Richard L. Miller of Houston, the author says he used federal reports to track fallout clouds from the Nevada Test Site. He found 20 passed over Salt Lake City in 1951-53, 1955, 1957, 1961 and 1962.
Among these were some of the worst of the dirtiest test series, set off in 1953, including shots dubbed Nancy, Simon and Harry, blamed for killing thousands of southern Utah sheep.
Prevailing winds deflected atomic clouds to the Wasatch range, where fallout sometimes precipitated. "Salt Lake City is right on the path," Miller told the Deseret News.
U.S. district judge found negligence
"The court finds that defendant (the federal government) failed to adequately warn the plaintiffs (fallout victims and relatives) or their predecessors of known or foreseeable long-range biological consequences to adults and to children from exposure to fallout radiation from open-air atomic testing and that such failure was negligent . . . .
"The court finds that the defendant failed to adequately and continuously inform individuals and communities near the test site of well-known and inexpensive methods to prevent, minimize or mitigate the known or foreseeable long-range biological consequences of exposure to radioactive fallout, and that such failure was negligent.
"The court finds that as a direct and proximate result of such negligent failures . . . defendant unreasonably placed plaintiffs or their predecessors at risk of injury and that each prevailing plaintiff . . . suffered injury for which (monetary damages) should be paid."
- U.S. District Chief Judge Bruce S. Jenkins, May 10, 1984. The decision was later overturned on a technicality.