The world's 1st atomic bomb causes rare cancers in New Mexico and no apologies for 76 years
On a chilly July morning, 11-year-old Henry Herrera and his father were outside their home in Tularosa, New Mexico when they saw a bright light and heard the crack of the world's first atomic bomb test.
Hours later, her house was covered in ash.
Why It Matters: Three quarters of a century later, Hispanic and Mescalero-Apache families, as well as descendants of those who live near the Trinity Test, are battling rare cancers that have ravaged nearly four generations as the federal government ignores, fires and forgot.
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These families, mostly Latinos and Indians, now want recognition and compensation like white families near US nuclear test sites in other states. But time is running out.
The big picture: "The military didn't tell us anything. Not even 'I'm sorry.' You didn't just hurt a few Mexicans who lived there, I suppose, "Herrera, now 87, tells Axios.
No president, from Harry Truman to Joe Biden, has apologized to residents near the Trinity test or openly campaigned for New Mexico to be included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
Details: On July 16, 1945, the US Army detonated an atomic bomb developed by scientists from the then secret community of Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project.
The bomb exploded at 5:29 a.m. in a desert valley called Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead.
His thunderous roar during the rainy season threw people from the breakfast tables in Tularosa and sent others to the Mescalero-Apache Reserve.
At first, the radioactive cloud of the explosion blew away from Hispanic villages and indigenous communities, but the swirling New Mexico winds brought it back, covering those communities with debris.
Henry Herrera describes how he saw the Trinity test explosion from his parents' house in Tularosa in 1945. Photo: Russell Contreras / Axios
What they say: "My mother just hung her white clothes on the clothesline, and damn it! You should have seen the damn dust rolling all over town. She was so mad she had to wash them again" , recalls Herrera.
What people didn't know at the time was that the clothes became radioactive. The family used them for years, he says.
Curious residents also went to the Ground Zero picnic and took away artifacts, including the radioactive green glass known as trinitite.
Some even used contaminated scraps of cloth to make christening robes.
The Trinity Test in New Mexico. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
The intrigue: only after the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki about a month later would the residents of southern New Mexico learn details about the Trinity test.
Over the years, residents developed rare forms of cancer and held cake sales to raise money for treatment without knowing what was happening.
The total cost of health care and the loss of money to the people in the affected four New Mexico counties are unknown.
Herrera had his jaw reconstructed after suffering from oral cancer. His family and other residents believe that such cancers are related to the atomic bomb test.
Remember, it wasn't just the first bomb that was worrying. During the Cold War, the US government increased its production of nuclear weapons by mining uranium across the Navajo nation.
There the sheep birth rate dropped dramatically and surviving lambs struggled to walk. Other lambs were born without eyes.
The Navajo uranium miners also contracted cancer and struggled with healthcare costs. Many ventured into the desert to die alone, as dying at home is considered a bad omen.
There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation today, according to the EPA. Houses and water sources near these now closed mines are exposed to increased levels of radiation.
A Navajo woman feeds sheep in a hut on the Navajo Nation in 2005. Photo: Gail Fisher / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
What's next: Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which works to help families affected by the Trinity Test, tells Axios that residents of southern New Mexico are hoping to finally get enrolled in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
RECA is a federal law originally passed by Congress in 1990 to provide financial reparations to the downwinders of the Nevada Test Site and subsequent uranium workers in other states.
The act is slated to go under on July 15, 2022, but the Hispanic village of Tularosa and the Mescalero-Apache reservation were never incorporated into the law due to the omission of Trinity test downwinders.
The Senate is expected this year to consider a bill sponsored by Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to expand the law and potentially include residents of southern New Mexico in addition to Native American uranium miners and some Idaho residents near other radioactive sites should be included, adds Cordova.
The bottom line: "The question arises: Why were people near the Trinity test excluded from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act?" Cordova says. "Many of them were People of Color."
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