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Day of the black rain

Monday, June 08, 2009

UNDER the cover of darkness, they were whisked out of the country in secrecy for an unknown mission on Christmas Island in 1957.

They were ordered not to tell their families when they would leave to join a British project in the Pacific.

Former naval officer Paul Aphoy recalls that night, saying he was excited by all the secrecy, not knowing what awaited them.

Mr Aphoy, 73, said he was transported to Nadi in a military truck and "slept on the ground underneath the Dakota and Hasting aircraft".

"There were no people to see us off. We sneaked off and came back home like thieves in the night," he said.

Mr Aphoy said they came to know about the tests when they were given lectures on nuclear weapons just before the test

"You couldn't back out then because you were wearing the uniform."

He added that about 80 naval officers were part of the test with about 285 Fiji servicemen taking part of the exercise

Mr Aphoy said 39 military personnel made up the first batch from Fiji that left on a ship for Christmas Island and witnessed the first two nuclear tests.

He recalls being instructed to dump radioactive waste off Christmas Island in 1958 after the nuclear tests.

"At the end of 1958, we took about 60 gallon drums about four miles away from Christmas Island and dumped it there. At first I didn't know what was in the drums. When I saw the crew coming with the drums with a strange officer, I knew something was happening.

"My instruction was to take those drums out to sea and dump them. There was a navy officer with me. I was the skipper. There were four Fijian sailors and 10 RAF personnel and one sub-lieutenant, an Englishman.

"We had no protective clothing. We were wearing blue shorts, no shirts and sandals. We were encouraged not to wear shirts because we started to itch in the hot sun. They will never tell us what happened to those drums but they were encased in concrete, they put waste inside the drum and poured concrete in and sealed the drum. I can still tell where it is. It's stuck in my mind," he said.

Mr Aphoy has undergone 59 surgeries and lumps are still visible on his body as a result of exposure to radioactive material.

His daughter Anne, 3, died in her sleep and his namesake suffers from occasional swells to the face.

"The big boy's face sometimes swells in the morning. It will just go away. Now it seems to disappear. He is 30 now and I don't think he'll be able to have a child."

Mr Aphoy said they were told to sit down and put the palm of their hands against their eyes before the blast.

"You can see the light go through your skull, you can feel it and the back of your shirt. I think a few seconds more and it would have burst into flames. We started moving and the loud speaker said keep still but we couldn't

"There were big shock waves, everything in front of us started flying into the air, stones and sand. Then they told us to put our hands down and turn around. When we looked, there was a new sun in the sky. And when the flames disappeared, it turned into a big full moon then into an ice cream cone.

"After that the wind started blowing strongly and they told us it was going to rain so we ran for the tent about half-a-mile away. Then it began to rain, black rain.

"We took off our shirts and pants and ran out into the rain to have our shower because there was no water on the island. We used to get our water from Hawaii. We opened our mouths and drank the water. They didn't tell us that it was radiation coming down. They all got sick when they got home and most of them died. The doctor in those days did not know what it was. They just said he died of cancer but didn't know the cause."

Tomorrow, Mr Aphoy and survivors from Christmas Island meet in Suva to determine how much to claim as compensation.

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