ST. GEORGE, Utah — His parents remember Chad Prisbrey as the perfect son: handsome, smart, dutiful, popular and always healthy--until a voracious cancer killed him at the age of 28.
"He was having headaches, that was the beginning," his father recalled. Then one night in 1975, he came home from his job as a dispatcher at the police department and said: "Hey, Dad, I can hardly lift a quart of milk. I feel terrible."
His weight dropped from 160 pounds to 80 as multiple myeloma consumed his body, and his bones grew so fragile he had to be wrapped in foam rubber for trips to a hospital in Salt Lake City, his mother said. Three months after the first symptoms appeared, Chad Prisbrey was dead.
A few weeks ago, the federal government sent Scott and Elaine Prisbrey a check for $50,000 to compensate them for what happened to Chad.
After a generation of grief and frustration, the Prisbreys and hundreds of other grief-racked Americans known as "downwinders" are at last receiving some recompense from the government that they believe ruined their lives. But many of the survivors say it isn't enough.
When Chad was a little boy he played outdoors in his sandbox while radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear bomb tests at the government's Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas rained down on the small towns of southwestern Utah.
That earned him a place among the hundreds of farmers, ranchers and other outdoor workers who died in the epidemic of cancer that has devastated St. George and nearby towns since the bomb tests were conducted from 1951 to 1962.
Science students, ignorant of fallout's potential effects, climbed nearby hills to watch the bomb tests. Housewives hung laundry on clotheslines as the gritty radioactive dirt fell around them. Farm families ate vegetables from contaminated soil and drank raw milk from cows that had eaten radioactive forage.
"If we had known what was going to happen to our little boy, we'd have gone somewhere else," Elaine Prisbrey said.
But suddenly southwestern Utah, the reputed home to clean-living, long-lived folk, was rife with cancer, birth defects and mental retardation, afflictions that have left a bitter legacy of grief and disillusionment among a population that was by all accounts patriotic and trusting.
"Their government did not keep faith with them," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said when introducing legislation that created the compensation fund in 1989.
If the compensation program was intended to assuage grief, placate anger, mete out justice or restore a community's faith in Washington, it appears unlikely to succeed. Scores of downwinders said in interviews that the money is too little, too late and too grudgingly given to fill the void left in their lives by the deaths of parents and children whose only sin was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They say government officials knew at the time that people here were in danger, hid the fact because they wanted to continue the tests and compounded the outrage by denying afterward that fallout was the cause of the cancers and other afflictions.
"They knew, they absolutely knew at that time, although they claimed they didn't," said Elmer Pickett, 72, proprietor of Elmer's Home Center, whose wife died of cancer at 39, leaving six children. "Knowing what they were doing to us, they were in a sense murdering us. They are just as guilty of murder, in my estimation, as the people who were running the death camps in Nazi Germany."
Pickett has a printed list of family members who died of cancer. It has 13 names on it. "Money won't bring back the people who died," he said.
"They have killed more of us in a more inhumane way than if they had dropped the bomb right on us," said Claudia Peterson, whose 6-year-old daughter and 37-year-old sister died of cancer within a month of each other. "The hardest, most bitter thing to swallow for me is that they knew."
"Everybody has to die. I'm only angry that they lied to us," said Rose Bostwick, tears streaming down her face as she displayed a photograph of her son, Myrle, who died of cancer at 41, leaving a widow and four children.
Bostwick, like everyone else interviewed here, recited like a mantra that "they never did set off one of those things unless the wind was blowing from the west," indicating that the Atomic Energy Commission knew the fallout was dangerous and did not want it to blow over Los Angeles.
There is no way to prove that any particular cancer was caused by radioactive fallout, but a federal judge awarded damages to 10 downwinders after a sensational 1984 trial, ruling that the government had deceived the people of St. George and failed to protect them.
An appeals court ruled, however, that the government could not be sued for discretionary acts performed in good faith, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling in 1988, leaving the downwinders with no recourse.