Herbie Goes Bananas, the 1980 film about a Volkswagen Beetle that is seemingly alive, is widely regarded as the worst of the Herbie movies. Some might even call it a disaster. Few could have guessed, however, that it would play a part in one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.
When the private radiotherapy clinic Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR) at Goiânia, Brazil moved its location in 1985, it abandoned its old location. Left behind was some outdated equipment and furnishings. Litigation ensued over the contents of the property, and the court ordered private security to keep watch over the site, pending the outcome of the lawsuits.
The security guard who was to protect the site on September 13, 1987, failed to show up for work. The reason for his absence? He took his family to a special screening of Herbie Goes Bananas. There is no record of whether he and his family enjoyed their special time together, but history does record that this little outing left the IGR site unguarded for the day.
That happened to be the day two self-proclaimed scavengers, Wagner Mota Pereira and Roberto do Santos Alves, entered the property and rummaged around, looking for items of value to sell for scrap. They left with a wheelbarrow full of assorted odds and ends, including the core of a radiotherapy device, a small capsule filled with cesium chloride, a highly-radioactive compound made from Cesium 137.
Alves was making the most of the time his partner was at the doctor’s office. During this time he succeeded in wrestling the cesium capsule from its protective rotating head before taking a break for the rest of the day. The next day he set to work again, and succeeded in puncturing the capsule with a screwdriver. Upon seeing a strange blue light emitting from the screwdriver hole, he used the screwdriver to scoop some of the glowing substance out of the capsule. It stands to reason that particle physics was not one of Alves’ stronger suites, so he did not recognize the glow as Cherenkov radiation. Instead, he thought the substance must be some sort of special gunpowder, so he tried to light it. Despite his best efforts, the powder would not ignite. The prolonged exposure to the radioactive material did result in such severe ulceration of his right forearm that it had to be amputated.
Alves sold the goods to a nearby scrapyard. The scrapyard’s owner, Devair Alves Ferreira, noticed the blue glow from the punctured capsule and brought it into his house. For the next three days he invited everyone he could find to come in and witness the mysterious artifact. He started exploring the possibility of making a ring for his wife out of the glowing metal.
On September 21 one of Ferreira’s friends succeeded in liberating several rice-sized grains of the glowing material from the capsule. He and Ferreira began distributing these grains to friends and family as good luck charms. The charms did not bring good luck to his wife, Gabriella Ferreira, who began showing signs of illness that same day.
Ferreira’s brother, Ivo, got his hands on the capsule and scraped out additional material. He took it home and spread it out on the floor before allowing his six-year-old daughter to sit there while eating her lunch. The daughter was intrigued by the glowing substance and rubbed it on her body like makeup. She even applied some of the dust to her sandwich as she was eating.
It was Gabriella Ferreira who first connected the dots between the appearance of the strange item and the onset of illnesses. Retrieving the items from a scrapyard that had recently purchased them from Ferreira’s scrapyard, Gabriella placed them in a plastic bag and delivered them to a hospital on September 28. The physician on duty, Dr. Paulo Roberto Monteiro, suspecting the items to be radioactive, notified the authorities.
By this point more than two weeks had passed since the theft of the materials from the IGR site. Six distinct locations were contaminated. Topsoil was removed from the contaminated areas and several homes were demolished.
Far more tragic was the impact on the people. 130,000 people flooded the hospitals for testing. 112,000 were examined for radioactive contamination. One thousand of these were identified as having received a dose of radiation greater than a year’s worth of background radiation. Of these, 249 were found to have significant levels of radioactive material on their bodies. 129 of these had internal radioactive contamination. 20 exhibited signs of radiation sickness and required treatment.
And then there were the deaths:
- Admilson Alves de Souza, a junkyard employee who worked on extracting salvageable material from the capsule, died on October 18 at the age of 18 from internal bleeding and heart and lung damage.
- Israel Baptista dos Santos, a junkyard employee who worked on separating the lead from the rest of the radioactive core, died on October 27 at the age of 22 from respiratory and lymphatic failure.
- Leide das Neves Ferreira, the 6-year-old daughter of Ivo Ferreira, who had played with and even eaten the radioactive material, died on October 23. She was buried in a special fiberglass coffin lined with lead to prevent further radioactive contamination of the area.
- Gabriella Maria Ferreira, the wife of junkyard owner Devair Ferreira, was the one who first connected the illnesses to the glowing substance. Her illness got progressively worse, and she died on October 23 at the age of of 37 — the same day as Leide das Neves Ferreira.
Ironically, the person who received possibly the largest exposure of radiation, junkyard owner Devair Ferreira, survived radiation-related illnesses. His death in 1994 was from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcoholism.
Perhaps all of this could have been avoided if only a movie other than Herbie Goes Bananas had been playing that fateful day.