MOSCOW — Gen. Nikolai T. Antoshkin, the commander of a perilous helicopter firefighting operation in which he and other pilots braved radiation exposure to contain the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, died on Sunday. He was 78.
The general died after a “difficult illness,” according to a statement from the speaker of Russia’s Parliament, where he had been a deputy for the ruling party since 2014. The head of the party’s faction in Parliament said General Antoshkin had been hospitalized with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
General Antoshkin was a leader of the so-called liquidators, the hastily assembled teams of military and civilian workers sent to the nuclear disaster site.
Braving enormous risks, they became heroes and are now widely revered in Russia for preventing an already terrible disaster from becoming worse.
The No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, north of Kyiv in Ukraine, exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radiation into the atmosphere and threatening to emit much more as a fire raged in the open reactor core, spreading radioactive smoke.
The firefighting and cleanup task began in secrecy but later became public. The goal was to contain as much radiation as possible on site, lest it contaminate fields and sicken people throughout Europe.
After members of a firefighting crew that approached on the ground the night of the accident came down with acute radiation sickness, the tactic shifted to fighting the fire from the air, with helicopters.
General Antoshkin, who was serving in a Soviet Air Force unit in Kyiv at the time, became the commanding pilot of this operation, though it wasn’t clear that pilots would fare much better than the ground crews in protecting themselves from radiation.
For about two weeks, helicopters flew over the open core to drop 5,000 tons of sand, clay, lead and boron to extinguish the fire and tamp down the radiation. The flights exposed the pilots to contaminated smoke and beams of radiation emanating from the reactor.
Pilots also photographed the site from the air and measured radiation. One helicopter crashed after hitting a crane above the reactor. The air drops succeeded in extinguishing the fire.
In addition to commanding the operation, General Antoshkin flew sorties himself and was exposed to radiation, according to RIA, the Russian Information Agency.
Like the coronavirus today, radiation spewing from the plant posed an invisible, mysterious threat: Exposure brought risks usually impossible to sense at the time and which proved lethal to some and insignificant to others.
After the firefighting and containment operations, the helicopters were so radioactive they were abandoned at the site. Some were later buried. The bottoms of the fuselages, which had been exposed to the open reactor core, were a particular concern. After they were abandoned in fields, witnesses said grass turned yellow under the parked machines.
It was a harrowing experience for the pilots. In total, 28 liquidators, including members of the firefighting team on the ground, died from radiation poisoning within days or weeks of their exposure. The longer-term toll among the pilots from cancer or other diseases is uncertain. One helicopter pilot, Anatoly Grishchenko, died in 1990 of leukemia he attributed to radiation.
But General Antoshkin made it through. Despite his exposure, he went on to a three-decade career in the Russian Air Force, then served in Parliament with the governing United Russia party, before contracting the virus late last year.
The future general was born during World War II in a village in the southern Ural Mountain region of Bashkortostan, according to an official biography. He was drafted into the military at 19 and later chosen for flight school.
General Antoshkin fought in several of his country’s wars, including the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the border war with China in 1969 and in Afghanistan in 1979, according to the biography, published by RIA, the state news outlet.
But he won his highest honors for the flights over Chernobyl, in recognition of the extraordinary risks. For commanding the helicopter flights over the burning reactor and flying some sorties personally he won the Hero of the Soviet Union award.
The head of United Russia in Parliament, Sergei Nevrov, said on Sunday that Mr. Antoshkin had been hospitalized with Covid-19 before his death. “After a difficult illness our comrade has passed away,” the speaker of Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said in the statement. “Risking his own life, he saved the lives of others” in extinguishing the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.