The world's 1st atomic bomb causes rare cancers in New Mexico and no apologies for 76 years

Henry Herrera, 11, and his father, Henry, were outside their Tularosa home, New Mexico, on a cool July morning when they heard the sound of the first nuclear bomb test in the world.
Their home was then covered in ash hours later.

Why it matters: Nearly four centuries later, Hispanic, Mescalero and Mescalero Indian families, as well as the descendants of those who lived near the Trinity Test, are facing rare cancers that have ravaged nearly four generations of their families, while the federal government dismissed, ignored and forgot about them.

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These families, mostly Native American and Latino, want compensation and acknowledgement like white families living near U.S. nuclear test sites in other States. But the time is running out.

The big picture: "The army didn't tell me a damn." Not even, 'I'm sorry.' They didn't do anything but hurt a few Mexicans who lived there, I suppose," Herrera, now at 87, tells Axios.

From Harry Truman to Joe Biden no president has ever apologized to the Trinity Test residents or advocated openly for New Mexico to be included under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Law.

Details: The U.S. Army launched an atomic bomb that had been developed by the Manhattan Project scientists at the then-secret Los Alamos community. It was detonated on July 16, 1945.

At 5:29 AM, the bomb went off in Jornada del Muerto (or Journey of the Dead) desert valley.

Its thunderous roar in the rainy season knocked people out of breakfast tables at Tularosa, and forced others on the Mescalero Apache reservation to hide.

The radioactive cloud from the blast blew away initially from Hispanic villages, but New Mexico's swirling winds brought it ashore, covering these communities in debris.

Henry Herrera recalls seeing the Trinity Test explosion in his parents' Tularosa house in 1945. Russell Contreras/Axios

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They're saying that "My mother had just hung white clothes on the clothesline and God dang! You should have seen all the dust floating around town. Herrera recalls that she was so mad, she had to wash them over and over."

The clothes were radioactive, something that no one knew at the time. He says that the family continued to use them for many years.

Curious residents went to ground zero for a picnic and also took trinitite, a radioactive green mineral.

To make christening gowns, some even used the contaminated cloth that was left behind.

New Mexico's Trinity Test. Photo by Corbis via Getty Images

The intrigue: It was only after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about a month later that residents of southern New Mexico were able to learn more about the Trinity Test.

Over the years, residents developed rare forms of cancer. They held bake sales to raise funds for treatment.

The total health care costs and the amount of money that has been lost to residents in the four New Mexico counties affected by the earthquake are not known.

After suffering from mouth cancer, Herrera had to have his jaw rebuilt. His family and others believe that such cancers are linked to the atomic bomb testing.

Remember: Not only was the first bomb a concern, but so were other weapons. During the Cold War, U.S. government increased its nuclear weapon production by mining uranium throughout the Navajo Nation.

The birth rate of sheep dropped dramatically and the remaining lambs were unable to walk. Others lambs were born with no eyes.

Navajo uranium miner Navajo also got cancer and had to pay for their health care. Because it was considered a bad sign to die at home, many people ventured out into the desert to end their lives.

According to the EPA, there are more than 500 abandoned uranium mining sites on the Navajo Nation. Radiation levels are elevated in homes and water sources located near these now-closed mines.

In 2005, a Navajo woman fed sheep in a shack at the Navajo Nation. Photo by Gail Fisher/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

What's next? Tina Cordova, cofounder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which advocates for families that were affected by the Trinity Test tells Axios residents in southern New Mexico that they are hopeful of being included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

RECA, a federal law that Congress passed in 1990, is used to pay financial compensation to Nevada Test Site downwinders.

The act will expire on July 15, 2022. However, the Hispanic village Tularosa in Mexico and the Mescalero Apache Reservation in Arizona were not included in the law due to the exclusion of Trinity Test downwinders.

Cordova says that the Senate will consider a bill by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to extend the law and possibly add southern New Mexico residents to the mix.

Bottom line: "It raises the question: Why was the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act not extended to people living near the Trinity Test?" Cordova agrees. Cordova says, "Many of them [were] people of color."

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