Newspaper: The Patriot
Date: April 5, 1979
Title: An Open Letter from Harrisburg: To Our Friends Beyond the Radius, Hi!
Author: Bill Blando, Staff Writer
An Open Letter to Friends and Relatives Outside the Five-, 10- and 20-Mile Radius, and Anyone Else Who May Care:
Yes, we’re still here. And, we glow only with pride, having survived (so far) the radiation scare and the media blitz.
Thanks for the calls. We know you were worried. So were we. Still are. But right now, we’re OK, calm but cautious. To paraphrase the awful Lina Wertmuller film with the almost-accurate title, most of us remain in our usual beds, not yet experiencing the end of the world.
This has been some kind of week, as our favorite sportscasters say. The first couple of days, starting last Wednesday, served as an attention-getting device. The big day was Friday, to start a very long weekend for us and the technicians at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station who bring power to a lot of people mostly outside of the Harrisburg area. In those three days, such terms as “evacuation,” “rems and millirems,” “meltdown,” “hydrogen bubble,” “nuclear explosion” and “to err on the side of caution” fell from the tips of many tongues.
How to describe the events which led to President Jimmy Carter’s visit, with Rosalynn, too? Incredible? Fantastic? Unbelievable? They all fit, sort of. (Of course, a case could be made for the contradictory, concocted and confusing, at least until Harold Denton came on the scene from Washington.) Unreal? That’s not bad.
Do you remember the old Orson Welles radio thriller, “War of the Worlds”? Well, there were lots of similarities to that 40-year old program and the way things started Friday morning.
Not listening to the radio in the early bright, I missed the initial announcement, but Betty, my ever-alert wife, called from her job to tell me that something new and different was happening in the radiation story, adding that perhaps I’d better get cracking, if not packing.
I flipped on the radio switch, and there was the familiar rock sound-nothing unusual yet. But then it came, in familiar Wellesian tones, “We interrupt this program…”
The phrase was to be echoed and re-echoed throughout the day and, like the old Mercury Theatre of the Air dramatization, in decreasingly shorter intervals.
At one point, the station I turned to-a CBS outlet, coincidentally the same network that was destroyed over the air by Mr. Welles-interrupted one of its Spectrum speakers, trying to evaluate the social significance of a movie called “Norma Rae,” three times.
First, it was to hear a civil defense official remind us to be ready to evacuate, “although there was no evacuation yet,” and to plan to bring only basic necessities, such as glasses and prescription medicines.
The second cut-off came when an official from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency urged area residents to stay indoors.
Finally, after the third interruption, the Spectrum speaker was abandoned altogether, this time in favor of a telephone conversation with Gov. Dick Thornburgh, which was given the playback treatment.
One of the speakers, I forget which one, advised us that “there is no reason to panic at this time.” The question which begged to be asked was, “at what time would there be reason?”
But there are important things to be done in an evacuation, obviously. First, it is necessary to re-establish communications with one’s spouse, if only to say goodbye.
Unfortunately, the home phone was dead. That meant seeking a pay phone that might work, which meant going outdoors, thereby violating the advice to remain indoors. There were other chores, too-gassing up the car and tapping the reserves for a little traveling money.
I was not alone in my mission.
I lucked out at the gas station, pulling right into it and put to the pump.
The attendant, who doubles as a mechanic assured me that “this is the slowest it’s been all day. You should have been here earlier,” he added. “All I’ve been doing is pumping gas.”
While talking, his pumps were attacked by cars from three sides.
“Aren’t you afraid,” he asked, “of being outside?” He took my payment and shrugged, and as I drove off, vehicles were backed up on both sides of the pumps with the last car in line straddling the incline between the station and the sidewalk, with its tail hanging out over the street.
At the bank, I wasn’t so lucky, but the long lines moved quickly. Perhaps it was an act of subconscious faith that I didn’t withdraw all of my meager funds.
I asked the girl if the bank people planned on locking themselves in the vault until the whole thing blew away.
“No,” she said without a smile. “It might be safer, but I’m going home and hope it’s all right.”
Meanwhile over the radio, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Edison Co., which operates the stricken nuclear plant, was explaining that it was “not an uncontrolled emission” which touched off the dangers of the day. “It was planned,” he said emphatically, proceeding to charge the governor and everyone else with “overreacting.” There was “no danger,” he said, adding that the evacuation alert was ill-advised.
Commentary about the situation was interspersed by several brief musical interludes apparently to mark time for what was billed as a press conference by the governor. The radio commentators speculated that the governor would lift his stay-indoors recommendation, which he subsequently did.
But he also urged all pregnant women in a five-mile radius of the plant to leave the area and ordered the closing of area schools. That was surprising because until then the advice was to keep school children inside the schools.
Later, I heard stories about overly protective and nervous parents storming schools to yank their kin out. I can only imagine how harrowing such displays might have been for the children left behind.
Chores completed, I reported to work. “You should have been here a little while ago,” I was told upon entering The Patriot newsroom. “It’s been a wild and crazy place. More phone calls than a telethon, and even a lunch hour siren in the Capitol area to trigger a bit of panic in the streets.”
Reporters from all over the country streamed in and out, getting calls, making calls and typing reams of copy on portable machines of different sizes and colors.
A couple of radios were blaring incoherently in different corners of the newsroom along with the squawking of a couple of police radios. There was even a TV set playing, but for the most part ignored.
Despite all the activity, the air hung heavy with skepticism, “You just can’t believe what anyone says,” was a phrase repeated over and over. One of the younger reporters said he had just been ‘speaking with a nuclear expert for two hours and I couldn’t understand anything he said.”
Later, exchanging views with Barker Howland, the genial elder statesmen of our newsroom who holds the title of religion writer, among others, he remarked that he’d bet “church attendance would be up this weekend. It goes back to the old adage about there being no atheists in a fox hole.”
He should know that territory, being an ex-Navy chaplain. “There’s only one thing I can compare this to,” he said referring to the day’s events. “I have the same feeling now that I had when a bunch of us were left at an airstrip in Korea and the CO (commanding officer) told us, ‘Sorry boys, you’re on your own. That was the last plane today.’
“Yes, it was that same feeling, knowing that that was the last plane, watching it fly off and not being on it.”
That’s probably as good a way as any to end this, because Howland, at least, had something to compare it to. And I, quite frankly, didn’t.
But, how was your week?