With the help of a number of excellent fixers, researchers and translators—among them my Ukrainian colleague Taras Shumeyko, a seasoned journalist in his own right, who has specialized in the Chernobyl research for much of his career—I was gradually able to track down the individuals whose stories provided the narrative framework for the book. I met one in a Moscow hospital, and another in a Kiev sanitorium; others I found in remote snow-bound villages, at conferences and liquidator reunions, and in widely varying degrees of health; several died as a result of radiation-related illness over the years of my reporting. As I gathered more material, many people suggested others I should speak to, and I gradually became able to fill in gaps in the story, and corroborate one account against another. The events surrounding the explosion of Reactor Number Four were mired in myth and disinformation from the very beginning, and the facts of what really happened are often so incredible that it was crucial to be able to verify as many details as possible, both through individual testimony and through declassified documents, memoirs, diaries, and film and photographic archives.
In the end I conducted some 80 interviews, including with those who worked at the plant—from the director of the station himself down to trainee reactor engineers and low-level technicians—as well as with former generals, KGB agents, investigators and government ministers, and many ordinary citizens of Pripyat. Each of these men and women had a fascinating and affecting story to tell, and in the end there were far more lives than could ever be included in a single book. But all contributed crucial threads to the wider narrative tapestry, helping me better understand the realities of life in the USSR, during times of emergency and also in the day to day life that preceded and followed it. My hope is that that the combination of individual testimony with documentary and archival sources has resulted in an accurate sense of what it was like to live through these extraordinary times—what legendary reporter Bob Woodward calls “the best version of the truth.”