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New Mexicans claim cancer is living legacy of world’s first atomic bomb test

July 28, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
This July marks the 70th anniversary of the first ever test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico. But a group called the Downwinders -- local residents whose homes were downwind of the blast site -- aren't celebrating the milestone. People here believe the radiation from the bomb has caused a spike in cancers in their communities. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports.

GWEN IFILL: This month marked the 70th anniversary of the first test of a nuclear bomb. It was a milestone for science, and credited with leading to the end of World War II.

But one group isn’t celebrating. They call themselves the Downwinders, because they lived downwind of the blast site.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports from South Central New Mexico.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The solemn reading of names at a candlelight vigil. This one with traditional New Mexican luminaries, is in a baseball field in the village of Tularosa. These are victims of a different kind of loss.

GLORIA HERRERA, Tularosa Resident: There’s just — there’s too much cancer here.

WOMAN: There’s so many tears.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Gloria Herrera knows about cancer, from her friends, her neighbors and her husband, Henry, who’s had three different kinds. The Herreras blame the disease on a day etched in Henry’s memory. He was 11 years old.

HENRY HERRERA, Tularosa Resident: Boom, that thing exploded. And I mean it was a big explosion. It wasn’t like these regular ones we had been hearing.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: In July 1945, scientists worked in secret on the world’s first atomic bomb in a part of New Mexico’s desert called Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of Death.

They hoisted a 19-kiloton device called the Gadget on top of a 100-foot tower. At 5:29 in the morning on July 16, a tremendous flash came first, and then a mushroom cloud stretched seven-miles high. It was the same size and power as the plutonium bomb that would be dropped 24 days later on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands.

July is the rainy season in New Mexico. Hours after the blast, the skies opened up. But no one told residents to evacuate, even as radioactive ash poured down on livestock, crops, water cisterns, and laundry hanging on lines.

HENRY HERRERA: It was just black, black, real, real fine dust, because momma had just hung up her clothes, white sheets and pillowcases and all the white clothes that she washed first.

WOMAN: And it was on the roof. We got it into the cistern. It was on our food. It was on our chickens, our cows, our rabbits.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: A 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control examined radioactive fallout from several nuclear tests. For Trinity, the study found some radiation levels were almost 10,000 times what is currently allowed in public areas.

People here believe the radiation caused a spike in numerous cancers among those who lived downwind of the site.

HENRY HERRERA: There isn’t a family in Tularosa, I will bet you 10 dollars to a doughnut, that don’t have somebody in their family with cancer, maybe one, two, maybe the whole family, you know?

GLORIA HERRERA: We were the first people that the atomic bomb was used on. We were the first Downwinders. The government came into our backyard and used us as guinea pigs. They experimented with us. And they left.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The Hinkle family was one of the hardest-hit. Edna Kay Hinkle is a breast and skin cancer survivor. Her grandparents had a ranch 27 miles away from the blast site.

EDNA KAY HINKLE, Tularosa Resident: And my dad and his uncle were out there asleep on the front porch. And the — a bomb went off and woke them up. And they saw the mushroom. Every one of my grandparents’ kids were affected. Oh, there were 14 in that one family, you know, and then you add granny’s siblings, well, there’s 20 in one family. And that’s a lot of cancer.

MAYOR RAY CORDOVA, Tularosa: My brother died of cancer. My oldest son from my first marriage had a brain tumor. And it was a very rare tumor.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Ray Cordova is the mayor of Tularosa, which sits around 40 miles from ground zero, population about 3,000. He says the numbers affected by cancer are climbing.

Most Americans have family and friends who have battled cancer. One in two men, one in three women will contract the disease at some point over their lifetimes. But are cancer rates higher here in the towns and villages near the Trinity test site?

CHUCK WIGGINS, New Mexico Tumor Registry: So, if you like the analogy of a war on cancer, we are the people who are drawing the map for that war.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Chuck Wiggins heads the New Mexico Tumor Registry, and his data doesn’t show higher cancer rates in the area around the test site.

CHUCK WIGGINS: When you compare Anglos in the Trinity site area to Anglos in other parts of New Mexico, the rates are really quite similar, same with Hispanics and Natives. The rates really are — are quite similar to other parts in the state.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Wiggins says there is a link between radiation and certain cancers. But exposure can occur in many ways, for example, X-rays and other diagnostic tests, flying in airplanes, tanning or smoking cigarettes.

CHUCK WIGGINS: Cancer is one of the leading causes of illness and death in New Mexico. What I would say is, is that that’s true in Tularosa. It’s also true in Santa Fe County and many other counties throughout the state.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: But that argument doesn’t fly in Tularosa.

RAY CORDOVA: I do not believe that, not for one minute.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Tina Cordova, the mayor’s niece and a thyroid cancer survivor, has organized the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. They have collected health surveys from hundreds of people and compiled names of the dead. Gloria Herrera is one of the list-makers.

GLORIA HERRERA: What if I give you a list of 285 people that we know? We have attended their funerals. We have seen them. We have gone to take food to the families, 285 people that we know of, and there’s probably more.

TINA CORDOVA, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium: Our goal has always been basically two things, number one, to get the government to acknowledge and apologize to the people in all of these small communities in and around Trinity, and, then, number two, to include us in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: That act passed by Congress in 1990 apologized and awarded $50,000 to $100,000 to miners and participants exposed to radiation in nearly 200 nuclear weapons tests. But Downwinders were only compensated in three states, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

GLORIA HERRERA: They forgot about New Mexico.

HENRY HERRERA: They didn’t do nothing about us.

GLORIA HERRERA: They forgot all about New Mexico.

HENRY HERRERA: Zilch. Nothing.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: It now will take a congressional amendment to change that, something Senator Tom Udall has worked on since he was elected to Congress in 1998. This year, on the anniversary of the Trinity test, he again urged his colleagues to make amends to the people of his state.

REP. TOM UDALL (D), New Mexico: They deserve justice. They deserve compensation. And they are still waiting, 70 years later, still waiting.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: People in Tularosa aren’t counting on getting a check from the government any time soon.

GLORIA HERRERA: There’s not enough money in this whole wide world to compensate the people in Tularosa. We could fill a lake with the tears and the prayers.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: At the White Sands Missile Range, an obelisk marks the spot where the bomb stood. The ranch house where it was assembled is two miles away. Tiny pieces of green glass litter the ground, melted sand that’s still slightly radioactive.

The National Cancer Institute is embarking on an assessment of what people ate and how they lived in an effort to determine how much radiation they got. But those results aren’t expected until at least 2017.

In Tularosa, there’s skepticism about a government study.

GLORIA HERRERA: The Cancer Institute is coming to question us 70 years later? What happened 10 years afterwards, 20?

WOMAN: Think about how many people we have lost this year.

TINA CORDOVA: I’m not certain we need more studies. In my mind, what we need to put money into is compensation, is health care, is screening, is helping people who need help.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: I’m Kathleen McCleery for the “PBS NewsHour” in Tularosa, New Mexico.

GWEN IFILL: The Trinity site is open to the public only twice a year, but you can take a tour with us in a slide show of images on our Web site. That’s at

And later tonight on PBS, a new film takes an in-depth look at the race to produce the first atomic bomb, the ethics of using a weapon that could end human civilization, and the lives of those who built it. “The Bomb” airs tonight on most PBS stations.