I’m here now in Tularosa, New Mexico for the 65th anniversary of the testing of of the first atomic bomb (code-named Trinity). The first person I meet at a potluck in the home of one of the organizers, is a man who witnessed the Trinity test. Jim Madrid is here from Denver, CO with his wife Bea and his grandson Joshua. My own grandfather Enrico Fermi didn’t live long enough to share his stories of the the Manhattan Project and the mushroom cloud over the desert. It’s a powerful moment for me, hearing, for the first time, a first hand account.
Here is Jim’s story:
“It was early morning July 16, 1945. I was 13 years old and we were on our way to work at Holloman Air Force Base. I used to go there to get odd jobs. My mother was driving the car. There were two other women, Phil, my brother, and myself. We were cramped into that car that morning. We got over the overpass going west, maybe six or seven blocks. We witnessed this horrendous light. This huge, huge light coming in from the North. It rose from the heavens, so bright, so extremely bright.
“My mother said in Spanish, ‘El sol esta arrimando. El mundo se va a acabar.’ The sun is coming close. The world is coming to an end.” She told me to drop to my knees, but I kept looking.
“We kept looking at the light. After awhile all we could see was a black and white light – like a negative. It changed my vision and lasted a long time. Weeks or months – I don’t remember. That light was horrendous. As high as the heavens. I expected to see God coming out from under it. If it’s the end of the world, I wanted to see. But it didn’t happen that way.
“We carried on to the Base. I was left with terrible eyesight. It has left a rash on my skin. It’s painful. No one knows what it is and they give me palliative treatments, but it’s there.
“It’s make me emotional to tell this story today. They’re all dead now. My mom got salivary cancer. I got a call to come here this weekend – just a few days ago. I said yes I’ll be there. I want people to know my story.”
August 10, 2010. Jim Madrid’s wish is being fulfilled. Today Reuters published a piece about Madrid, his fellow Trinity downwinders, the Centers for Disease Control’s study and the federal legislation to compensate survivors and their families.
Here’s how it happened. A few days after I spoke with Jim, I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My hosts handed me a front-page story about a physicist who had worked closely with my grandfather Enrico Fermi on the development of the atomic bomb – the bomb Jim witnessed. Robert Carter, the physicist, happened to be visiting Santa Fe at the same time as I was. Dennis Carroll, the journalist who wrote the article kindly put me in touch with Carter and I had the treat of hearing some new stories about my grandfather. When Dennis told me he collects oral histories of workers at nuclear weapons facilities, I told him about Jim Madrid and the first downwinders and he pitched the story to Reuters.