Nuclear Winter in Chernobyl

(Part 2 of those story is located here.)


What follows is my account and photos of an amazing trip to Chernobyl. I recently updated the whole story, as I had it in various pieces, spread across dozens of posts. Now, it’s all here together for you in one place. Enjoy! – Trey Ratcliff

Part 1:  Arriving in the Exclusion Zone and Beyond

I could tell something was awry with Yuri’s left eye.

As we talked, the eye seemed to wander further off to the left, like a Cesium electron leaving its nuclei buddy. Yuri didn’t seem to notice or make any kind of head tilting compensation.

Shaking the Geiger counter, he shook his head. “Things not look good here.”

We moved on to the next stop.

But let’s start from the beginning.

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Here I am, standing in front of the man reactor at Chernobyl, holding a geiger counter. I'm only mildly worried.

The Abandoned Zone

It all started just outside the Exclusion Zone, also known as the Fourth Zone or the Четверта zone. This 30km radius was abandoned in 1986 just after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and subsequent evacuation. People are still allowed inside certain areas of the Exclusion Zone, but only for a few hours or a number of days, based on the location and the type of activity.

As far as this idea of “adventuring in Chernobyl” was concerned, every woman in my life told me this was a bad idea. Every man said it sounded awesome. It was awesome, although I really usually fare better when I listen to the women. For the guys, here is a picture of me holding a Geiger counter at the main reactor.

Anyway, the day could not have been colder, but it fit with the milieu of the trip to Chernobyl. In case you don’t know or can’t remember, this is the infamous nuclear power plant that melted down in 1986; I remember it in a special way because it was in the middle of the cold war, and any news out of the region was covered in a certain mystique.

I can't imagine anyone would "accidentally" drive into Chernobyl, but this sign is there, just in case.

As an American that thought it was wrong the way Ivan Drago used steroids versus pure barn-trained Rocky, it was bit strange going into a Soviet structure, a once top-secret nuclear military encampment. I felt the full weight of the cold war on me at the checkpoint-Charlie-like security gates where a bulky enforcer came out to check over my passport. He squinted and grunted a lot, looking me over, and going through it page by page. I’ve only got two blank pages at the end of my passport, so I am sure he thought I fit the travel profile of a spy. Although, if he brought it up, I would argue that spies would not use passports and they would just sneak in. He would then argue that spies that did not want to appear like spies would use regular passports. After that, I would have no argument, so I am glad we did not go down that path. I don’t think he spoke English anyway.

The Bunker

I went with my friend Will Kelly. But, he forgot his passport, so he was detained inside an old Russian bunker. It wasn’t pretty. He had to sit underground there all day long watching old episodes of Columbo dubbed into Ukrainian. But, this is the sort of thing that happens to Will all the time. I often take him with me on adventures, because he seems to absorb all the bad luck that might otherwise infect me.

You don't want to mess with this guy. I've never had anyone look at my passport so intensely.

He handed the passport back to me and sent me on to the town of Slavutych, where I was to meet with Yuri. There was not much English spoken at all during this time. There was a lot of grunting and gesturing, all of which seemed to get me down the one road that led deeper into the hot zone.

This road was especially lonely. Skeletal trees lined its sides with occasional abandoned buildings, crumbling into the ice and snow. The day was crystal clear and even though I could see to infinity down this slide rule of a road, I could see nothing at the end.

I passed by several strange structures, including one I suspected to be the infamous Steel Yard “Over-The-Horizon” radar that was used to monitor ICBM launches to the east using ionospheric reflection.

This was a long and lonely road. It led straight from the 30km exclusion zone into the heart of it all.

Zombies, slow Zombies

When I got to the Slavutych, a few kilometers away from the security gates, I saw something I did not expect to: several people walking around a concrete city. They strode with somewhat of an abandoned gait, and looked in different directions with glassy eyes, almost as if they had resigned themselves to living within this area. I didn’t see any children or women, just severe-looking men in heavy clothes, slogging from one place to another. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going. They simply moved from one blocky concrete structure to the next.

The town of Slavutych was built just after the nuclear disaster in 1986. The town supposedly had several thousand inhabitants, mostly formed by the children that evacuated Pripyat during the meltdown. Before the town was built, they covered the land with two meters of uncontaminated soil. “Move to the panacea of Slavutych, now with two meters of soil over the radiated Earth.” I can see the promotional pamphlets now.

I understand that there are many children in the town and even things like restaurants and swimming pools, but I did not see any of that. I went straight to a military building.

It was concrete, like most everything else. The floor was had a water-warped laminate that looked like a wood texture. The walls looked thin and cold inside and there was not decoration besides old maps on the walls and the only furnishings were tired chairs and conference tables.

Then I met Yuri. He looked like he might have been young and robust at one point, but now he was a bit upset to see me, because it meant another trip to the heart of the meltdown. We shook hands and he was perfectly nice. It had been a while since I had spoken English, so I was happy to see he spoke it clearly and well.

I also paid one of the military guys to borrow his Geiger counter so I could keep track of the RADs as we moved around.  I only knew a little bit about this system.  Big numbers:  bad.  Lots of scary clicking sounds: bad.

An old Soviet-style 80's hotel, now abandoned and desolate.

Heading to Pripyat

Yuri put on his military jacket and fur hat and we headed into another cold room with a large map of the area. He motioned loosely at it, then squinted into the middle of the map a large red circle, then shrugged it off and motioned for us to leave.

We got into the van and started driving to the ghost town of Pripyat. Yuri told me he was from Moscow and his curious job choice was a shade of indentured servitude that brought him into the hot zone for many weeks on end. He said it in a matter-of-fact way, as if that is just the way things are expected to be.

Once we entered the hot zone, the people disappeared entirely. Time-burned buildings stood alone with swinging metal doors revealing a gaping maw of blackness within...


The Red Forest and the Abandoned Amusement Park

Very soon outside of Slavutych, we stopped at Rudyi Lis, the Red Forest, so-called because of the heavy fallout cloud that dumped radioactive dust all over the pine forest. It caused cases of albinism in swallows and undocumented damage to other wildlife. I don’t know if it affected squirrels or not, but since they are already insane, there is no reliable control group.

Here is Yuri, my careful companion. He kept a second eye on things, so to speak.

Yuri got out of the van near an old “Welcome to Chernobyl” sign at the edge of the Red Forest. He pulled out the Geiger counter, which was clicking away faster than Jack Bauer during a typical hour, and it read 0.293. Ouch. He squinted at it and clicked the glass, a universal move of technology readout desperation, and began hustling back to the van. I flipped off the Nikon and followed without question.

The dark shadows of a girl blowing bubbles. It's one of many ghosted silhouettes that seem even more lonely out here.

Along the way, I didn’t see any animals even though I was going through what has come to be known as the “Radiological Reserve.” Yuri told me that many Polesian native animals have flourished since the area was abandoned by humans. I didn’t see any, but then again, since I was putting my life in Yuri’s hands, I accepted his claims without question. If he says there are lots of animals, there are lots of animals. If he says this area has a lot of radiation and we need to leave, then we need to leave.

We eventually four-wheeled our way through the snow to deserted Pripyat.

I started in perhaps the creepiest part of Pripyat: the playground and amusement park. This was recently completed just before the disaster. Bumper cars, swings, a ferris wheel, and other bits of abandoned toys now lay quiet and creaking in the snow.  I am a pretty visual person, so it is a strange image I conjure up — Soviet children running around a perfect master-planned world before it gets wiped away while they are out for a play.

The amusement park crumbles with lonely decay. It's hard to imagine the children playing out here on the day-of or the day-after.


Part 2 of the story

(Part 2 of those story is located here.)

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  • Stephen Pierzchala

    Congrats on your journey into the Zone. Can’t wait to see the rest of your images from this adventure!


  • C.C. Chapman

    Absolutely amazing photos in a scary, creepy, amazing way.

  • Susan

    This is great Trey….just like being on a trip but with none of the danger! Take care!

  • a girl

    Wow – I’m not sure whether to say “cool”, or to get angry with you! But I can tell that you were very excited for the tour. Poor Will, did he miss it all?

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  • Iulian

    Wow, i’m fascinated for a long time by this kind of stuff (especially Cernobyl), and every time I see a story from someone who’s been there, it fires me up more to go too.. One day, soon, i’ll go there, and have my story :)
    I have some pictures shot in deserted buildings – one of those series can be found here : – but an entyre deserted city some sort of a “Mecca” :D
    One question, i should ask : it looks like you used a film camera, or ? (i’m thinking that digital cameras won’t make it through such radiation levels, near the reactor..)
    Thank’s for a great story, and great pictures !

  • Pete63

    Fascinating story.Must have been very spooky, sortof, hair on the back of theneck standing up kinda stuff. So sad though, all those poor men, women and children who had their one and only life so badly affected or even, ended.

    Great pics Trey, keep em coming. Don’t forget to pop to London sometime soon.

  • tratcliff

    Thanks guys –

    Yes I did use a digital camera. The radiation did not affect the camera any, thank goodness. For some reason, I was more worried about the camera than myself.

  • slimeface

    That’s a great story!! Fantastic images of a place most people will never see.

  • Iceman9294

    You amaze me Trey. Thank you for sharing your latest adventure. Glad you and your wife have kids already!

  • Jen

    Trey—really good stuff. I too have wanted to go see Chernobyl, maybe I have a slight death wish of my own…pretty amazing….thanks so much for sharing your eerie experience.

  • Philip Luedtke

    I’m jealous beyond words. I presume without appropriate connections a tour of the site is unheard of?

  • tratcliff

    Thanks all – You can get a tour if you just plan ahead. There are passports to be sent around and a few preparations to be made… but if they let me in, they will let anyone in!

  • Gavrusha

    Great photos and story. I am a girl but I always wanted to go to the Zone (as they call it in Ukraine). I lived in Kiev for almost 5 years but never had a chance to do it. Or simply I didn’t know how to arrange it. Could you pls tell me how your friend managed to arrange the tour and what sort of documents are required for that. I envy you. COOL!

  • tratcliff

    Sure -just drop me an email and I will send you the details

  • Hode

    Very cool pictures. There is something so eery and fascinating about Chernobyl and you captured it.

    I hope you don’t mind, I posted this to Digg!

  • Alex banner on the 3rd photo, on a balcony. What is that? Who put it there? When?

  • Markus Sorensson

    I hope you have frozen some sperm, cause those balls of yours are not going to work well anymore.

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  • Adam

    Way to get dugg again Trey. =)

  • Joost

    Creepy ..especially the graffiti (i rhymed)

  • Joe

    Check out Bush’s many mistakes here:

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  • cathode

    Wow, what a crappy over-use of HDR.

  • Trat For

    This will all end with crying.

  • June

    @tratcliff… Dude,

    Sometimes you got to start listening to the women in your life, most deff. I think you make some stupid discion to risk your health like that. I hope for you that you live long enough to tell your kids this story.

    All the best form The Netherlands ;)

  • devin

    I think you mean Red Forest, also it’s somewhat disconcerting that they told you to turn away from it at a rating of .29. In the new movie Vice guide to travel, they’re told to turn away when they get a rating of 4.2!!

  • Matt

    I’m interested as to what units the meter you were using was displaying? Was it referring to energy levels (Curies) or body dose rate (Rem/hr)?

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  • chad

    I looked at the pictures. neat

  • chad

    hi, ammanda

  • chad

    oops spelt your name wrong sorry

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  • Dave

    Great pictures!
    I read ‘Wolves Eat Dogs’ by Martin Cruz Smith last year, and ended up poking around Chernobyl and its surroundings for a few hours with Google Earth (lat 51.269088° lon 30.217586°)
    Very creepy.

  • ted

    “fare better”

  • Andrew
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  • Adam

    I like the pictures a lot. I put a small link to your Chernobyl page on the front page of today. I’d like to feature some of your photos again sometime if you don’t mind.


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  • Koos Fernhout

    You might find Elena Filatova’s site about Chernobyl interesting:
    Just for your info.
    Kindest regards,
    Koos Fernhout

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  • Johanna

    Well, on the plus side you’ll never need another nightlight.

  • Skip

    I was in Keiv in 2001 and when to the Chernobyl museum. A lady in the flat next to us took a trip to the zone…my wife had to care for her the next day she was so sick. I have pictures…before we owned a digital camera…which I could scan in of the museum in Keiv.

  • mary

    Are there any opportunities to reside (purchse a home) in this area. I am from Canada, and am interested in living in Ukraine. I speak the language, so that would be helpful. I am finding it hard to be able to economically move forward, so I wonder if my son and I were able to move there, if there are any future opportunities. (of course not in evacuated areas, but closer to the safe zones, where property prices may be less.

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  • MarkR

    The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a fascinating place to visit.

    I visited the area for two days in June 2006 with a former resident of Pripyat.
    We got a tour of the Chernobyl Plant (including the Reactor 4 control room),
    several of the abandoned villages, and Pripyat. I have posted a photo journal
    of my trip at:

  • MarkR

    The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a fascinating place to visit.

    I visited the area for two days in June 2006 with a former resident of Pripyat.
    We got a tour of the Chernobyl Plant (including the Reactor 4 control room),
    several of the abandoned villages, and Pripyat. I have posted a photo journal
    of my trip at:

  • Karoli

    I don’t know how I missed this when you first posted it, but I did. What an amazing, striking and chilling set of photographs. I have never seen anything quite like it.

  • Tollen


    Chilling, striking photography. It is an honor to view these photos, knowing the risk of visiting there. In 1992 I visited hospitals in Kiev that treated sick children from the Chernobyl area, a most heart wrenching experience.
    Thank you!!

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  • carlos

    Nice humor and interesting world you have come upon. Probably many other safer places to visit and not risk getting radiation…but somebody has got to do it. I remember the meltdown,…I was in (west) germany at the time, and i recall the farmers had to destroy their crops because of fear of the wind dusting their crops with the fallout. Must say it’s nice to see finally somebody photographing and telling the story of such a BIG mistake. Thanks-Спасибо

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  • Aaron

    “fare” not “fair”

  • tratcliff

    Whoops… my copy editor missed that foible

  • Pham Son

    Strike into the heart. I till feeling the hurt from seeing children die one by one in the hospital in that day.

    Very nice pictures you got.

  • amanda

    I am a grade 11 student and currentley doing finals review an di look at these pictures and read this story and it isnt untill im done reading it do i realize how i have it im not dying or changed by radiation i didnt have to be evacuated leaving my friends im lucky and all of you should know that you are too and stop worrying about the little things because there are people that are worse off then you live today like you will die tommorrow enjoythe good life because its all yuov got

  • Steve

    Hey bro! Well Done! Visit my sites, please:

  • André (PN Admin)

    your pictures look great, the story is great, too.
    Although I can’t really belive that some of the pictures are real, they look like painting or digital art… but still awesome.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • mekto

    you think you are smart ? IQ test

  • http://noneyet John Beijer

    Hello dear man.

    i am 16 years old and i live in holland. i am very excited about chernobyl and i really want to visit it’s plant and Pripyat,as you did. thanks for those big high detail awesome pictures. one of them is on my background now. i thank you for your wonderfull story. hopefully i will be going to chernobyl in about 2 years.

    Greetings from holland,


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  • Rob Robinson

    Very impressive,
    Excellent story and pics….Very motivating,maybe its a death wish but I will make that journey myself to the “Exclusion zone” one of these days. Its one of the few places on earth that can use a catastrophy to there benefit.Hopefully more people will take the tour and boost the economy in the area. !

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  • Tom Warner

    Great journal and photos. I have been fascinated by Chernobyl ever since the disaster occurred.

  • Liench

    I truly admire you for such a nerve to go there and experience all of it yourself. I was born in 6th of may, 1986 and my mother later told me that she was really worried about my father who almost got there for cleaning up after disaster, oh, there I should say that I am from Latvia which is really close to chernobyl. maybe that is reason why I feel interested in stories about chernobyl and enjoyed yours so much.
    thanks for sharing experience. good luck :)

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  • Sir David Bówli

    “We stopped in something he called the RAD forest that had an old Chernobyl sign that was kitschy and interesting. 0.290 on the screen. He looked at me, “We should leave quickly.”

    LOL, this is not RAD forest, this is red forest…

  • cs_szabo

    Dear Tratcliff,

    I’ve just finished reading the 2nd part of the story. I’m sorry, but there are some mistakes in it. It seems the town of Chernobyl was called as Slavutych in the story.

  • Mike Goad

    I have worked in nuclear power for about 35 years and am familiar with the accident at Chernobyl. Your story and photos are very interesting.

    Mike Goad
    Dover, Arkansas

  • cANON A720

    I think you mean Red Forest, also it’s somewhat disconcerting that they told you to turn away from it at a rating of .29. In the new movie Vice guide to travel, they’re told to turn away when they get a rating of 4.2!!

  • Bruce

    I was privileged to spend one week in the contaminated zone where the settlers had moved back. This was for the 10th anniversary of the accident. I was with CBS, Tom Fenton and his camera crew. We all got some of the first copies of the 10th anniversary book that they published. We then visited the damaged reactor. We were supposed to spend max 10 minutes, we were there close to an hour. My hair is gray!! I have pics of the ferris wheel and stood by the apt. complex in the forsaken city. The meter was clicking about 2000 and more near the reactor. Good memories–gave out tons of supplies to the self settlers in the bad zone.

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  • Craig

    Wow, I’ve always wanted to go there. Nice pictures by the way :). So, do you recommend going here or anything? I would love to see it, specially the feriss wheel since I like Call Of Duty 4. I admit im a saddo that plays it all the time :S. If any of you have xbox live and want to add me im o P O D Y o. If that doesn’t work I’ll be Ls SniiPeZz. Well anyway nice one going through all the radiation! :)

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  • jess

    I’m a chick and I think it would be amazing to visit Chernobyl. Thanks for sharing the story :D

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  • http://dada vilius

    wow this is…

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  • arie

    oh my god.. empty

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  • Phil

    I know lots of people who’ve been there on trips. No probs. And one guy who’s been working there for years. Also no probs.

  • Stephen Peterson

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful work, curious humor, unique vision, and generous tips about HDR. I just d/l the trial version of Photomatix v.3.1.2, and was delighted to see that it accepted my PEF (Pentax RAW format)files with nary a hiccup. W/o much effort I was able to create a single-image HDR from my K10D’s RAW output and looking forward to seeing how this all integrates with PC, Pentax, and Photoshop 7.
    Thanks again, and keep drawing!

  • http://-nowebsiteavailable- Joshua

    I would recommend that only people who are older than the age of fifty and who already have had kids can to go to that place.

    Just to prevent damages to their reproductions particals.

  • alex wayles

    if radiation exposure exceeded .55 rads for any extensive period, your fingernails may turn black and fall off, and possibly one or two fingers along with them. this ordinarily occurs during sleep, so if these symptoms should occur, you should wake up to them. but it seems that you took reasonable precautionary measures (apart from being there). (that was a joke…..i hope). good shots, but they have a rather subdued, documentary flavor, for you. my sister was an film major, and she loves your sh

  • alex wayles


  • http://mozila cekovka

    i don now what we do do but they will be not survive

  • Scott

    Amazing post…I guess you can say you’ve been everywhere if you can say you’ve been to Chernobyl.

  • Geeshapathi perera

    it’s realy awesome man….you have done of my dreams…i will really try to get this experience

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  • Antonio L Rivera

    Wow !!! I’d read a lot of articles concerning Chernobyl, and I think by far, this is one of the best! You explained with lots of details with a nice mix of a reporter and a tourist without being a political critic or a furious activist. I love the pictures because it represent the feeling of being there with great compositional perspective. Chernobyl looks like a gost town frost on the 80’s. I was on my Sophomore year when the tragedy happened and I could rememmber what a wordeful and terrible season on my life: Chernobyl, Challenger disaster, my first car, plans and dreams for the future and the list will go on…
    Keep going!
    Antonio Luis
    Puerto Rico

  • jamie

    i love the pics of the place and how much would it cost in au$ to go there

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  • rags

    like the guy smilin away. couple of others have a bitt too much of HDR treatment

  • mesothelioma

    I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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  • http://NuclearWinter Oliver Gibberd-Thomas

    I find that Chernobyl has effected me, and made me what I am. A close encounter with the vast radiation lost me a finger somehow. I cannot remember how, but It just happened. I woke up near the sarcophagus and tremberling with the cold. I had the feeling that the whole structure would collapse ontop of me, it was a frightening week in Ukraine.

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  • luke

    Great pictures.

    I would love to go to Pripyat one day!

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  • Victor Wojtychiw

    Do you even know what country you were in? Your referring to Ukrianian soldiers as well as other refrences of the area as Russian is very insulting.


    Hey Trey !!
    At least you got a half -ass smile from one of the guards !!
    It took me 3 solid weeks to get one from my Hotel guard !!

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  • Cheri Sundra

    I enjoyed reading your blog—stunning pictures!

    You are hanging out with the wrong women…..I love exploring abandoned places and Chernobyl is high on my wish list! ;-)

  • joeyb

    this is a once in a life time trip thats for sure! thank you for sharing

  • RumataMx

    Hell! Good story, how brave you are to get in those risky places. Kudos to you Trey!
    Thanks for sharing.

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  • Master Reseller


    Great Job…
    I like to read all information on this Blog.

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  • Sebastian

    i love the history, i love Chernobyl (without diseased interesting) i like the ghost towns
    like pripyat. I Hope someday travel to there.

    Sebastian, From Argentina.

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  • Martin – Germany

    Hey Trey,

    why this green cast in the pictures? Don’t tell us the film in your camera got damaged because of the radiation ;-))) Or is your intention to make the pics look toxic?

    thank you,
    Martin. :o)

  • Christin

    Captivating recount. The photos are unbelievable. It’s like straight out of Silent Hill or something….so very creepy and desolate and ……no words….

  • Bill Dodd

    Great idea, taking someone to absorb your bad luck. Hey, I can be pretty unlucky if you need someone else to hold a bag on your next trip. I’ll even pay my own way, plus I know alot of those Columbo episodes in case Will gets lonely in the gulag. ;)

    All joking aside, a great read.

  • Seth Goldstein

    Hey Trey

    You’re a braver man that I am. I’ve always be fascinated by this disaster and your photos really do tell a story. Thanks for being the brave one to show all of us what it’s like 20 years later.

  • TheTimeChamber

    This place is amazing! I recently spent 3 eerie days here mayself, you can find the photos here:

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  • Nakoo

    This story reminded me of Elena’s blog

  • Jacob Deuchar

    That’s because it’s not HDR ;)
    White Balance is shocking, but i think it’s intentional to make the photos look aged or like Polaroids…

  • Klappa

    Too bad you filtered it yellow and applied HDR to every pic otherwise a fantastic story!

  • Luke Lakatosh (SIC Support)

    These aren’t HDR as far as I’m aware.

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