KIEV, Ukraine – Black-clad Orthodox priests sang solemn hymns, Ukrainians lit thin wax candles and a bell tolled 25 times for the number of years that have passed since the Chernobyl disaster as the world began marking the anniversary Tuesday of the worst nuclear accident in history.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill led the nighttime service near a monument to firefighters and cleanup workers who died soon after the accident from acute radiation poisoning.
"The world had not known a catastrophe in peaceful times that could be compared to what happened in Chernobyl," said Kirill, who was accompanied by Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and other officials.
"It's hard to say how this catastrophe would have ended if it hadn't been for the people, including those whose names we have just remembered in prayer," he said in an emotional tribute to the workers sent to the Chernobyl plant immediately after one of its reactors exploded to try to contain the contamination.
Tuesday's service began at 1:23 a.m. (2123 GMT), the time of the blast on April 26, 1986, that spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the most heavily hit areas in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.
The explosion released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Hundreds of thousands were sickened and once-pristine forests and farmland still remain contaminated. The U.N.'s World Health Organization said at a conference in Kiev last week that among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to the radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found.
Several hundred Ukrainians, mostly widows of plant workers and those sent in to deal with the disaster, came to Tuesday's service to pay their respects to their loved ones and colleagues. Teary-eyed, they lit candles, stood in silence and crossed themselves to the sound of Orthodox chants.
"Our lives turned around 360 degrees," said Larisa Demchenko, 64. She and her husband both worked at the plant, and he died nine years ago from cancer linked to Chernobyl radiation.
"It was a wonderful town, a wonderful job, wonderful people. It was our youth. Then it all collapsed," she said. "If only you knew how much our hearts ache for our children, how many sick grandchildren there are, how many couples without kids.
"We come here to look each other in the face. If it hadn't been for the people buried here, Kiev would no longer exist," Demchenko said.
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have cut the benefits packages for sickened cleanup workers in recent years, and many workers complained directly to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as he handed them awards for their work at a ceremony Monday in Moscow.
Officials in Bryansk, the Russian region most contaminated by the disaster, have failed to make necessary repairs at the local cancer hospital, worker Leonid Kletsov told the president.
"It's the only place of rest for us," he said. "Officials promised to renovate it, but these promises are still promises."
Medvedev was to join Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych for memorial ceremonies in Chernobyl later Tuesday.
A service similar to the one in Kiev was held at the same time early Tuesday in Slavutich, a town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Chernobyl that was built for people evacuated from homes close to the plant.
Vladimir Stanelevich, a 61-year-old former cleanup worker, said he came to remember the people who gave their lives to protect others.
"You understand, there (in Japan) it was let's say a natural catastrophe, and here it was a technological one. it's a big difference."
Chernobyl has come into renewed focus since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan last month, with the country still struggling to bring the radiation-spewing Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant under control.
Japanese newspapers on Monday highlighted the significance of Chernobyl. The Asahi interviewed a former Chernobyl worker under the headline: "Fukushima, don't tread the same route."
In Germany, thousands of people demonstrated on Monday near several nuclear power plants, demanding a speedy end to the use of atomic energy. Japan's crisis has prompted Germany to freeze plans to extend the life of its plants, order a temporary shutdown of its seven oldest reactors and seek a quicker transition to renewable energy.
In Austria, Chancellor Werner Faymann used an event in Vienna marking the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl to call for a nuclear-free Europe.