A Trip to Trinity by Helene Kobelnyk, published in VIVAcini! 28 Sep 2012
Trinity is one of those places where one’s feelings about it can be very ambivalent –it was for me. I’ve lived in New Mexico for over thirty years and am still discovering new and unique places to not only photograph, but experience. When I told my friends that was heading out to the open house at Trinity Site this past spring, they remarked, “What for? I heard that all that’s there is just a rock.” I replied that I needed a more challenging topic to photograph –it’s easy to make a beautiful photo of autumn foliage and seascapes –God’s work, but not so easy to create a visually appealing photo of man’s destruction. And besides, the earth in that area needed some healing.
I headed west on US 380 from Capitan/Ruidoso and stopped for gas in Carrizozo, which seemed to be unusually busy with traffic, and as I discovered, all headed to Trinity. Fifty-three miles later I reached the Stallion Gate Entrance to White Sands Missile Range, and by 9:00 AM a line of vehicles was already waiting to go through the security check. The military at the checkpoint were very official, cordial, and made it clear that the only place I could photograph was at the Trinity site –no doubt they noticed my small “arsenal” of lenses . They also reminded me that I was not allowed to park on the side of the road and hike into the brush because I might come across something “undetonated”. Apparently they sensed my penchant for questioning authority.
On the last twenty miles to the site, the anticipation was gradually building and I found myself searching for some clues that I was getting close to “ground zero”, which I found soon enough. As soon as I made the last turn, I spotted a gradual slope, an easily recognizable depression in the landscape, where for better and worse, this planet entered the atomic age on July 16, 1945 at precisely 5:29:45 AM Mountain War Time, when the first atomic bomb was detonated here, in our precious New Mexico, a culmination of the Manhattan Project headquartered in Los Alamos.
Entrenched in World War II and desperate to develop the weapon before the Nazis, US scientists led by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer designed two weapons: one based on uranium and the other on plutonium. The latter was a more complex design and the scientists felt that it needed to be tested before it could be used as a weapon of war. Trinity Site was chosen as the testing ground because it was already a part of the government-controlled Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. Its proximity to Los Alamos served as a convenience for scientists to travel to and from the facility during the design phase, and the isolation and seclusion provided by the Jornada del Muerto almost guaranteed project secrecy.
The bomb was assembled in the master bedroom of the vacated MacDonald ranch house, approximately two miles from Ground Zero and detonation took place in the predawn hours of a still, New Mexico summer morning. Although no information on the test was released until after the atomic bomb was used as a weapon against Japan, it was obvious to the people in New Mexico that something had happened. The shock of the blast broke windows 120 miles away and was felt by many at least 160 miles away. Residents in Roswell reported seeing an eerie glow in the sky. The heat of the blast vaporized the steel tower from which the bomb was suspended and melted the desert sand into a green glassy substance appropriately named Trinitite which can still be found in the area.
According to the information provided to the visitors, radiation levels in the fenced ground zero area are low. On an average the levels are only 10 times greater than the region´s natural background radiation. A one-hour visit to the inner fenced area will result in a whole body exposure of one-half to one millirem (an adult in the USA receives an average of 360 millirems every year from natural and medical sources). Although most of the trinitite and other radioactive material has been removed, there is a low structure which covers and preserves a portion of the original crater floor.
Forever the skeptic, I decided I would not dally in the compound longer than I needed. Two things stuck in my head, “only 10 times greater” and “one hour visit.” And seeing the large “Radiation Danger” signs did not comfort me. As I neared the end of my photo shoot, I noticed my camera settings began to flash for no reason. I had to repeatedly turn it off and reset it . . . my tried and true Nikon that never malfunctions. So, I took it as a sign to leave, but not before I stopped by some kind of “vendor tent” by the entrance. Several people were looking at his display of rocks and some “radioactive” shards and dishes. Mistakenly thinking that he was an expert in radiation, I described my camera’s malfunction and asked him specifically if the elevated radiation could cause this. He replied with a question, “Did you drop the camera?” After trying to clarify my camera situation, I realized that he was having difficulty getting from point A to point B. He then proceeded to explain that his “radioactive” pottery and dishes were completely safe, unless you ate them. “We’ve been around radioactive stuff all our lives and see, we’re alright.” I looked at the couple, each with a crooked grin and glazed look in their eyes and concluded . . . right . . . time to leave.
This is a site well worth the trip for any history buff. The blast clearly changed the landscape of ground zero and the course of the war, and the monument at Trinity Site is an ominous testament to the scientific genius of mankind, and at the same time a reminder and warning of the deadly power of the atom when used for destruction. Witnesses of the detonation describe a searing bright magnesium type white light, followed by a fireball traveling up through a tube of smoke which mushroomed out at about 20,000 feet, and then punctuated by a deafening blast and heat. The scene could be described as beautiful and horrific in the same breath. Watching this new phenomenon that resulted from the research he directed, Oppenheimer later remarked that the only phrase which kept running through his mind was a line from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
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