Nikolai Antoshkin survived the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, but it appears he has fallen victim to COVID more than three decades later. The New York Times reports that the 78-year-old, who led helicopter missions to put out the fire at the nuclear plant, has died after contracting the virus last month and entering the hospital. A statement from the Russian Parliament attributes the cause of death only to an "aggravating illness." Back in 1986, Antoshkin served as the commanding pilot of the incredibly risky mission to drop sand, lead, and the mineral boron onto the burning No. 4 reactor in a bid to put out the fire and stop the spread of radiation. “Risking his own life, he saved the lives of others,” says the parliament's statement. The mission became necessary after firefighters on the ground were sickened from exposure.
In all, nearly 30 of these "liquidators"—including firefighters and pilots— died from radiation poisoning in a matter of days or weeks, notes the Times. Antoshkin and the others have been revered in Russia as heroes. "Some people may say they have no fear but nobody is not afraid," another of the surviving pilots told Reuters in 2019. "One person is frozen by fear, another driven by it. I had to do it." While the bravery of the pilots is unquestioned, a previous story at Live Science cites a study questioning the mission's overall effect. The drops "largely missed the nuclear fuel and the melted core which, after burning through the primary containment, cooled down by itself," according to the outlet. (Radiation levels in the area spiked again last year after forest fires.)