New Mexico ‘Downwinders’ Still Seeking Justice 77 Years After 1st Atomic Bomb Test

By Allan Stein
Allan Stein
Allan Stein
Allan Stein is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Arizona.
March 2, 2022 Updated: April 1, 2022

Ask Bernice Gutierrez of Albuquerque, New Mexico, how old she is and she’ll bluntly tell you, “I’m as old as the bomb.”

Born just eight days before the United States detonated the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945, Gutierrez has lived to see the terrible health effects of nuclear fallout radiation on her family.

“There’s no time frame for when you get cancer,” she told The Epoch Times.

It started with her maternal great-grandfather, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which proved to be fatal.

“My Mom had three types of cancer. She had skin, thyroid, and breast cancer. My one brother had thyroid cancer. His daughter had thyroid cancer. Another brother had prostate cancer,” Gutierrez, 76, said. 

On and on it went. Without letup.

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Bernice Gutierrez (L) describes how cancer has impacted her family in her dining room in Albuquerque, N.M. Next to her is Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, a grassroots organization whose aim is to raise awareness of the negative health effects of nuclear bomb testing. Gutierrez’s daughter Eugenia had thyroid cancer 12 years ago. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“My sister has had three recurring bouts of thyroid cancer,” Gutierrez said. “My youngest brother has thyroid disease. And I also have had my thyroid removed on the recommendation of my endocrinologist. So I’m also on thyroid medication.”

At last count, 41 family members have or have suffered from a radiation exposure illness. Of those, 23 have had cancer and seven have died from it.

“These are just the relatives I’m aware of—the ones I know that live here,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of us have thyroid issues. Brain tumors as well.”

Her husband, Toby Sr., got cancer. His sister never smoked or used tobacco but she died of lung cancer. Another sister had thyroid cancer, and another has lupus, an autoimmune disease. A brother who had prostate cancer now has thyroid disease.

“It’s ongoing. It never ends,” Gutierrez said.

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Members of the Gutierrez family in Albuquerque, N.M., (L–R) Richard, Eugenia, Toby Sr., Bernice, and Toby Jr., who died of cancer on June 3, 2020. (Family photo)
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Bernice Gutierrez was just 8 days old living near Carrizozo, N.M., following the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945. Pictured with her are her mother, Eugenia, and father, Bonifacio.  (Gutierrez family photos)

On June 3, 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bernice, a mother of three, lost her son, Toby Jr., 56, to a blood disorder that foreshadows leukemia.

Her daughter, Eugenia, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the time she gave birth to her second son has undergone three radiation treatments.

Gutierrez said that people like her—“downwinders,” they’re called—feel they’ve been abandoned by their government, left without answers. The downwinders got their name for living downwind of atmospheric nuclear bomb tests during the 1950s and ’60s.

When Gutierrez heard about the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC), she decided to join in 2014 to help raise awareness of the negative health effects of radiation from America’s nuclear test program. 

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The Cordova family of Tularosa, N.M., from the 1960s. Below, Tina Cordova and her cousin Ray are pictured at their first Holy Communion. (Courtesy of Tina Cordova).

Epoch Times PhotoTina Cordova of Albuquerque, co-founder of the organization in 2005, said she lost her father and other family members to cancer—which she believes was caused by radiation exposure from the Trinity blast.

Both of her great-grandfathers lived 45 miles from ground zero on July 16, 1945. They died of stomach cancer 10 years later. 

“They were given morphine and were sent home to die. And they both died,” Cordova said. “Both of my grandmothers had cancer. My Dad died after having three different cancers.”

Cordova said there were families living as close as 12 miles to the Trinity test site in 1945; thousands more lived in a 50-mile radius. However, the government claims the area was sparsely populated.

“The bomb was a plutonium-based bomb, and it was packed with 13 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium, but only 3 pounds of the plutonium fissioned,” the TBDC said in a fact sheet.

The rest of the material went into the environment.

With a half-life of more than 24,000 years, “the remaining 10 pounds of plutonium was joined with the soil, sand, animal and plant life, and incinerated. The resultant fireball exceeded the atmosphere and penetrated the stratosphere, traveling more than seven miles high.”

Once the radioactive ash fell from the sky as fallout, “it settled on everything—on the soil, in the water, and on the skin of every living thing, both human and animal,” the TBDC said. 

“In 1945, there were no grocery stores in the small villages surrounding the Trinity site. All the meat, dairy, and produce people consumed was either raised, harvested, or grown by them. It, too, was contaminated.”

A recent study by University of Arizona economist Keith Meyers found that radioactive fallout caused an estimated 340,000 to 690,000 deaths in the United States from 1951 to 1973.

Cordova said the nuclear blast at Trinity poisoned “vast quantities of cows’ milk” in a 150-mile radius of the nuclear blast and was later consumed by families—men, women, and children. 

In time, her father developed oral cancer.

“It’s really hard to describe to people what you go through when you have oral cancer,” she said, “but my Dad went through extensive surgery, had to have the lymph nodes removed from his neck, and extensive radiation. He had these beautiful, perfect teeth—not a single cavity in his mouth. The radiation destroyed the circulation to his jaw and he ended up losing all his teeth.”

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Tina Cordova of Albuquerque, N.M., as she appears as an infant in this photo with her grandmothers on the day she was baptized. Cordova is co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, an organization that seeks to bring attention to the negative health effects suffered by people living near the Trinity atomic bomb explosion on July 16, 1945. (Tina Cordova)

Physically, her father was an “incredibly strong man who loved his horse, loved to hunt, fish, and worked hard. My Dad was such a hard worker,” Cordova told The Epoch Times.

While convalescing at home, her father insisted on doing landscaping in spite of the feeding tube that was still attached.

“If you’ll come and do the lifting, I’m going to do this landscaping,” Cordova recalled her father saying. “I said, ‘Dad, you still have this feeding tube.'” He said, ‘I don’t care. I have to survive. And that’s going to be part of it.’

“So I would go every day and would carry the heavy bags of concrete and the heavy flagstone he couldn’t lift, so he could work on that,” Cordova said. “Then, he got prostate cancer, which I said was a walk in the park after the first time [with cancer].”

Then eight years later, her father developed a lesion on the side of his tongue that turned out to be cancer.

“My Dad didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, had no viruses, and developed two oral cancers. When I asked the doctors they said this just doesn’t happen, but it happens here a lot. We see a lot of this,” Cordova said.

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New Mexico resident Paul Pino, 67, says that all of the women in his family have had cancer or some other disease that he believes is attributed to exposure to atom bomb testing in New Mexico. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

In 1998, Cordova herself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 39.

The first thing the doctor asked her was when she had been exposed to radiation. Did she ever work with radioactive isotopes? Did she ever work in an X-ray lab? Did she have a lot of X-rays?

“I said ‘no,’ ‘no,’ ‘no,’ but I lived 45 miles away from the Trinity test site and that was my exposure,” said Cordova, whose younger sister is currently being tested for thyroid cancer.

“This is not an exaggeration—all the women in my family, my aunts, my grandmothers, my cousins, were all on thyroid medicine. Everyone has thyroid diseases, primarily low thyroid. My Dad’s older sister just completed radiation for breast cancer. It just goes on and on,” Cordova said.

Her dad was 72 when he died. Cordova said it “breaks my heart” to see a man in his 60s be diagnosed with cancer, even though he didn’t have risk factors or abuse his body.

“But in 1945, in the town where my Dad grew up, we didn’t have running water and we didn’t have electricity. My Dad and everybody else who lived in all these towns grew their own food and hunted,” she said.

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Louisa Lopez of Socorro, N.M., listens as other “downwinders” of the Trinity test site in New Mexico talk about their experiences with cancer in their families. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Tularosa at the time was home to a large irrigation ditch system from which many local residents would get their water, as well as from open rainwater cisterns. 

“When I was a child, we were probably receiving regular doses of radiation,” said Cordova, who fears for her other relatives who could be at risk for cancer. 

Luckily, none of them have shown any signs—“yet.”

“And when I say yet, and it’s awful, we kind of live our lives that way. Because we always wonder who’s going to be next? We don’t ask if we’re going to get cancer, we ask when are going to get cancer? My generation is where this is coming home to roost now,” Cordova said.

She said the only legal avenue of recourse for the downwinders has been the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). 

The legislation, established in 1990, provides lump-sum settlements of $50,000 to those who have suffered health issues related to exposure from atmospheric nuclear testing and $100,000 for uranium workers. Since 1991, RECA has paid out $2.5 billion in claims.

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Louisa Lopez, a member of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, reviews on Feb. 25, 2022, a list of those who have died of cancer in Socorro County, N.M., following the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945.

“The United States conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons development tests from 1945 to 1962. Essential to the nation’s nuclear weapons development was uranium mining and processing, which was carried out by tens of thousands of workers,” according to a RECA program summary.

The program is set to expire on July 10.

Two measures are currently pending in the U.S. Senate and House that seek to extend the federal program and increase cash benefits up to $150,000 for eligible downwinders.

That limited amount of money, Cordova said, is “still not enough,” considering 9/11 first-responders can receive up to $1.25 million in personal compensation from the federal government.

Paul Pino, 67, is another downwinder who grew up in Carrizozo, New Mexico, about 40 miles from the Trinity test site. 

Like Cordova and Gutierrez, Pino said he too has felt the impact of ionizing radiation exposure in the form of generational cancer and other serious diseases.

Four members of his family were alive at the time of the bomb test, he said.

All four have gotten sick. 

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A replica of the atomic bomb tower that was used at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945, stands at The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, N.M., on Feb. 26, 2022. (Below), a close-up view of a model of the bomb. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

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His mother, Esther Pino, 78, died of cancer that began as skin cancer and spread to her bones. His older brother, Greg, 68, died of stomach cancer.

“She died a horrible death in terrible agony,” Pino said. “She was tough. She never complained about anything. That bone cancer was horribly painful.

“My big brother, he was in the CIA and Vietnam. He survived that. He ended up dying of stomach cancer—from the radiation he probably got from the war with Japan. He was exposed at the ranch on July 16, 1945. He was a young man.”

Pino, with six siblings, said he believes World War II really started at Trinity.

His sister twice had benign brain tumors removed. Another sister survived thyroid cancer. Recently, his daughter, 40, began to experience terrible itching in her legs. When she had it checked out, she found it was skin cancer.

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A model of the bomb casing that was used to house Fat Man, the atomic weapon that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“When I turned 67, I got in touch with my doctor” and requested an early detection test for cancer, he said. “They don’t want to do it because it’s a lot of money. All these worries and thoughts are in your mind and you try to explain them to these doctors. They don’t know what’s going on.”

Pino said that while he appears healthy, he can’t be sure for how long.

“I’m very worried for my kids and my grandkids. All the females [in my family] have had thyroid problems, the young ones too.”

Louisa Lopez, 73, who lives near Socorro, New Mexico, about 28 miles away from the Trinity test site, said she lost her husband, Richard, to lymphoma in May 2020.

“Richard was pretty active with the downwinder group,” said Lopez, a mother of four who joined the TBDC in 2014. “I was interested in the fact that we had so many people dying of cancer in my community.”

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A boy floats a candle-lit paper lantern on the river in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome during 70th-anniversary activities, commemorating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima at the city’s Peace Memorial Park on August 6, 201 5, in Japan. The bomb instantly killed an estimated 70,000 people and thousands more in coming years from radiation effects. Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, which ended World War II. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

One day, she was told that a high school friend had died of pancreatic cancer.

“I told myself, ‘I’m going to get hold of these people,'” she said.

She started organizing her efforts with the downwinders group in Socorro County and making a list of people who either passed from cancer or received treatments for cancer.

Her list contains more than 100 people.

“I wanted to engage people here. I wanted them to care about why they were going through cancer. At first, I was having a hard time. They didn’t want to speak against the government. They were afraid of losing their jobs,” Lopez told The Epoch Times.

“They started seeing they were getting cancer, their kids were getting cancer, their parents were getting cancer. When I went to the funeral of my friend, I looked around and there were no old people. All the old people had died, and that scared me.”

“I wasn’t born at the time of the bomb,” Lopez added. “I was born in 1948. But I’ve seen what it’s done to my community.”

“On my Dad’s side, I had an aunt that had breast cancer. She died of breast cancer. On my Mom’s side, my grandmother died of stomach cancer. It didn’t dawn on me until two or three years ago—this thing went further. I’m also frightened for myself. On my husband’s side, there’s a long history of cancer. I’m happy I’ve survived 73 years without anything [happening], but I’m scared for my kids.”

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A sign welcomes visitors to the Los Alamos Laboratory after they cross over the Omega Bridge in New Mexico. The photo was taken on June 14, 1999. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Lopez said that losing her husband was the worst thing she’s ever had to face. It’s tried her soul and tested her faith.

“You better say goodbye to your dad. This is it,” she remembered telling her son the day his father died. “My son didn’t want to cry, but after he left [the hospital], I know he cried.”

“All of us call [Richard] the million dollar man because that’s what it will cost” to pay his medical expenses, Lopez said.

She is convinced his cancer started after he was exposed to contaminated soil while working as an excavator in the area.

Cordova said that before and after the 1945 atom bomb test at Trinity, few people even knew what radiation was. Some people said they thought it had something to do with radios, which they didn’t own.

The nuclear program at Los Alamos, known as The Manhattan Project, was one of the best-kept secrets around, she said.

“We pledge allegiance to the same flag. We pay our taxes. We are hard-working American citizens,” Cordova said. “We have hearts and souls. We have children and grandchildren. And we’ve been treated like we don’t count for anything.”

Bernice Gutierrez told The Epoch Times, “I get angry. I get real angry over what the government has done to us.”

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South Korean women clad in traditional costumes sing a song during a memorial service to pray for the Korean victims of the 1945 atomic bombing, before a monument at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on Aug. 5, 2015. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

The proposed RECA legislation expands the designated areas of radiation effects following nuclear weapons tests to include Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Guam, as well as additional areas in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

Since 1990, the federal government under RECA has been compensating downwinders who lived close to the Nevada Test Site. Many downwinders in New Mexico believe the state has never been included or compensated due to poverty and ethnic makeup.

Ideally, Cordova believes the new legislation should cover all related health care costs for downwinders and include a long-overdue apology.

“We were relegated to nothingness. There are things our government absolutely knew and things our government didn’t know,” she said.

“What they absolutely knew was there was going to be fallout produced and that it would be damaging to human health. They did … not … care.”

Allan Stein
Allan Stein is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Arizona.