Little Bits of History

Theft Goes Horribly Wrong

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 13, 2014
Caesium-137 container

Caesium-137 container

September 13, 1987: The Goiânia accident takes place. The Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR) was a private radiotherapy hospital in Goiânia, Brazil. They moved to a new location in 1985 and left the old hospital abandoned. In 1977, the hospital had purchased a caesium-137-based teletherapy unit and this remained at the abandoned facility. The unit held 93 grams of highly radioactive caesium chloride inside a container with a turning wheel inside which would allow the radioactive materials to be used therapeutically. When closed, the radiation was contained. When the wheel was opened, radiation could escape.

After the hospital was left empty, the courts (knowing hazardous materials were still inside) had a guard posted. On this day, the guard did not come to work, opting to go to the movies (Herbie Goes Bananas) with his family instead. Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira illegally entered the building. They found something they thought might have scrap value and loaded it into a wheelbarrow and took it to Alves’ home. They began to take the equipment apart at the house. That evening, both men became ill. This did not stop them from working. Eventually Pereira developed a burn on his hand which would cause him to have a partial amputation of his fingers. Alves took the “thing” outside and continued to take it apart. His burns would eventually lead to the amputation of his arm.

On September 18, the stuff was sold to a nearby scrap yard and the buyer came to the house with another wheelbarrow and wheeled the radioactive item through the streets. The thing was glowing from what we now know was caused by moisture absorbed by the caesium. This material enticed several people to scoop some out of a small hole by using a screwdriver and then passing it around to amaze their families and friends. Many of the people associated with this were becoming severely ill. Gabriela Maria Ferreira noticed this and figured out the cause. On September 28 (15 days after the theft), she went to another scrap yard, now in possession of the materials, and gathered everything up in a plastic bag and took it by bus to a hospital.

The next day, it was found to be radioactive. Walter Mendes Ferreira (no relation to the woman above) spent the day trying to convince authorities this plastic bag of stuff was dangerous. Eventually, 130,000 people came forward to be tested for high levels of radioactivity. High residue was found on the skin of 250 of these people. Twenty people showed signs of radiation sickness which required medical intervention. Four them died, included Gabriela and six-year-old Leide das Neves Ferreira who both died on October 23. Admilson Alves de Souza had died on October 18 and Israel Baptista dos Santos died on October 27.

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence. – Mark Twain

Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance. – George Bernard Shaw

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. – Confucius

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance. – Plato

Also on this day: It’s Hot, Hot, Hot – In 1922, the highest temperature in the shade is recorded.
Jumpman – In 1985, Super Mario Bros. was released by Nintendo.
Traffic Fatality – In 1899, the first traffic fatality in the US took place.
Supply and Demand – In 1812, supplies heading for Fort Harrison were captured.

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2 Responses

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  1. Sherry said, on September 14, 2014 at 4:49 am

    OMG, what a horrible incident! I wonder if anyone – I.e. the guard who played hooky that day – was ever held criminally responsible.

    • patriciahysell said, on September 14, 2014 at 7:30 am

      I don’t remember seeing that anyone was. The people who actually stole the thing suffered the consequences of their actions without the courts. I would think if someone were to be culpable, it would be the hospital who left this thing behind.


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