On April 26, 1986, a routine systems test of the number four reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (near Pripyat, in the Ukraine) caused a power surge – and an attempt at a manual shutdown caused a second, larger surge, which in turn led a series of explosions, leading to a large fire. The smoke from this fire spread over large portions of Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Atlantic coast.
The disaster – alongside the Fukushima reactor event of 2011 – is the worst nuclear accident in history. Estimates of the resulting deaths vary, with 31 to 64 deaths being directly attributed to the disaster, and hundreds of thousands of deaths since then being attributed to secondary effects. A large area around the reactor has been evacuated (and remains so today), including the entire town of Pripyat, and the environmental effects are likely to remain for another century at least.
It seems like such a cliché today, but 112 years ago, Francis Pharcellus Church, an editor of the New York Sun newspaper, was the first person ever to write that sentence, in an editorial entitled Is There a Santa Claus?
Church wrote the editorial, which featured that famous line, in response to a letter written by an eight year old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. The editorial is written in the fine rhetorical style of the late 19th century, and as much as H.L. Mencken probably despised its sentimentality (one can almost hear him saying “Bah! Humbug!” upon reading it), he was in the minority.
Not only is it the most famous thing that Church ever wrote (or that the Sun ever printed), but it is also the most commonly reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language. Not a bad response for a little girl’s letter.