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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Welcomes Child Victims of Chernobyl

NEW YORK -- Bob Thirkield of Cincinnati, Ohio, paced in the terminal at Kennedy International Airport like an expectant father in a hospital waiting room.

"I always feel like I'm about to have a baby when I do this," said Thirkield, 76, a retired businessman and sometime pilot, tugging at his collar.

Thirkield was one of 26 pilots, all volunteers, who were awaiting the arrival last weekend of 154 "children of Chernobyl," sickened by the aftermath of the worst nuclear accident in history. The pilots were to fly the children, ages 8 to 15, to host families in United States for a summer of medical care and relaxation.

While these children are not terminally ill, their health suffers from the fallout of the 1986 disaster, when fire ripped through a nuclear reactor in Ukraine, killing 28 people outright and spewing radiation over vast stretches of northeastern Europe. Over the years, the high levels of radiation lingering in the area have caused thousands of deaths and illnesses, particularly thyroid cancer.

Though many of these children were not even born when the accident occurred, they have mouth sores and respiratory problems and are prone to illnesses because of their weakened immune systems. In the United States, they will receive basic medical care f visits to pediatricians, eye doctors and dentists f which their families cannot afford at home.

This was Thirkield's third year with the eight-week program, sponsored by Children of Chernobyl, a nonprofit group based in Youngstown, Ohio, and AirLifeLine, a group of pilots who give poor patients free flights to receive medical care.

"They are like my children," Thirkield said. "By the end of the summer, their eyes shine a little bit brighter. You ask them what their favorite food is, and they say McDonald's and pizza."

The program began in 1992 with 11 children. Since then, with more American families willing to be hosts, the number of children has grown steadily, said Joe Knable, 44, the president of Children of Chernobyl.

For many of the children, this was their first time away from home, and for some, who had been helped by the program before, it was a much-anticipated return trip. One child draped himself in an American flag, and another sported a T-shirt plastered with the boy band 'N Sync, her favorite American singing group.

Anastasia Sergeyeva, 10, who made the trip last year from Minsk, said through a translator that everything in the United States was "brighter and shinier." She said she made so many new friends during her trip that she could not "count them on my fingers and toes."

Sergei Volochkovich, 11, arrived after traveling more than 30 hours from Chechelnyk, his village in Ukraine. "I cannot believe I am finally here," said Sergei, whose host family is in Ohio. Dropping his duffel bag on the ground, he stretched his arms out and twirled.