It was all just a big hullabaloo over nothing.

At least that’s how Dan Saphore felt the day after news broke of the March 28, 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The Carlisle area resident was convinced the attention was a scare tactic by environmentalists.

“I was at Bikini when it was radioactive,” Saphore told The Sentinel, referring to the July 1946 nuclear bomb tests over Bikini Island. “That was in 1946, and I’m still living. And I have three kids.”

From day one, The Sentinel newsroom was on the job chronicling history as it happened 40 years ago when fear prompted thousands of residents to evacuate the Midstate.

Donna Lee Over of Wood Lane called the situation “very scary” in a man-on-the-street article published on March 29. At one point, she thought of taking a job at the plant until word of the accident left her wondering about the health of its workers.

“It frightens me, yes,” Over said of radiation. “It’s one of those unseen things. You don’t know the damage that it does to you.”

Lack of notice?

Much of the coverage that day focused on the lack of early notice. Cumberland County was only notified of the accident around 8:30 a.m. March 28 – about four hours after it happened. County Commissioner Jacob Myers ordered Thomas Blosser, emergency preparedness director, to look into the reason for the time lapse.

Myers said while he sympathized with plant officials wanting to avoid a public panic, “I find serious fault with a decision not to provide adequate notice so we could have evacuated if necessary.”

Len Sorenson, mayor of New Cumberland, favored a measured approach, saying the accident did not have the proportions to warrant an alert over a broad area “because too many people would have over-reacted.”

The Sentinel editorial board pointed out that while the emergency backup cooling system did work to avert a disaster, fear and distrust of nuclear power plants was bound to create hysteria before all the facts were known. The newspaper called on officials to create a centralized investigative force to provide answers and discourage a witch hunt.

For insight, the newspaper turned to Professor John W. Luetzelschwab, chairman of the physics department at Dickinson College, who was not concerned about the level of radiation from Three Mile Island. Luetzelschwab based his conclusions on soil samples he took from his home located near Goldsboro, York County, about a mile from the nuclear plant.

Ticking time bomb

Twelve days prior to the accident, Columbia Pictures had released “The China Syndrome,” a movie starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas about a fictional emergency core shutdown and the corporate conspiracy to cover it up. Sandy Dwiggins of Carlisle saw the film March 29 at the United Artist Theater in the Camp Hill Shopping Center.

“There was this sort of hush at the end,” said Dwiggins, who wrote movie reviews. “It was a very, very intimate audience reaction. It made me more afraid of what could happen in terms of human error. In the film, it wasn’t the system that was wrong. What was fallible were the large conglomerates forcing things to be done before they were safe.”

Donald Stevens, a theater employee, said attendance was up at the movie the day after news the broke on TMI. According to UPI reports, stock of Columbia Pictures rose from $2 to $24 on Thursday, March 29.

In Carlisle, life went on as normal on Friday, March 30. “Traffic was heavy as usual, people on the move going places, doing things,” The Sentinel reported on Saturday. “The normal complement of young people were cruising downtown or hanging out at the Square in a happy-go-lucky frame of mind.

“But the outward appearances were slightly deceiving,” the article went on to report. “Radios in some places of business Friday seemed to be turned to a higher volume than usual. The topic of conversation between customers and clerks inevitably was about Three Mile Island. The undercurrent of concern was the uncertainty over what was happening and what it means. The conflicting statements issued by authorities since Wednesday has only served to add to the anxiety and frustration.”

Friday evening saw an uptick in phone calls brought on by a network news report a core meltdown was possible. There was even a rumor that President Jimmy Carter was coming to Carlisle Barracks.

“It’s like sitting on a time bomb,” a resident told The Sentinel. “You don’t know when it might go off.”

Meanwhile, at Dickinson College, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band played to a capacity crowd Friday at the Anita Tuvin Schlechter auditorium. But behind the scenes, the physics department continued to monitor the radiation level, and the college switchboard was busy taking calls from worried parents asking if their children should return home.

As late as Saturday, March 31, physics professor Priscilla Laws said the radiation level detected in Carlisle was no higher than the normal exposure through natural means. She even joked that her colleague Neil Wolf had not trumped up the whole thing to increase enrollment in his course “Nuclear Power – Friend or Foe?”

Evacuation plan

As the days turned to a week, details gradually surfaced on an emergency plan where residents from eastern Cumberland County would be relocated to central and western Cumberland County. This would only take place if Gov. Dick Thornburgh called for a mass evacuation from a 20-mile radius of Three Mile Island.

Under this plan, Camp Hill residents were supposed to go to mass care centers in Carlisle via Route 11 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Meanwhile, New Cumberland residents were instructed to go to Newville while residents of Upper and Lower Allen townships and Shiremanstown were destined for Shippensburg. Some people, however, felt compelled to evacuate without word from Thornburgh.

The Sentinel reported on April 2 that an estimated 50,000 people had left Cumberland, Dauphin, York and Lancaster counties. Of those, many were residents of the Harrisburg-West Shore area.

By April 2, 60 percent of Dickinson College students had left the campus, prompting a suspension of classes. Despite this, the college continued to operate its library, dining hall and dormitories.

A random telephone survey, conducted by The Sentinel, revealed the situation had to get very dire before most local residents would budge.

“Here’s my home, where I am ... It’s the only place I have to go,” said Frank Burkholder, 88, of Newville.

“I’m going to sit tight until something develops,” said Daniel Raudabaugh, of Boiling Springs. “According to the current news, there’s no major cause for concern.”

On April 3, The Sentinel ran a UPI story where federal officials expressed cautious optimism that the worst threat was over from the stricken TMI reactor. By then, it was reported that some of the 200,000 people who had left the four counties on their own were starting to return home.

Schools within a five-mile radius were urged to remain closed while schools on the East and West Shores were gearing up to reopen. Still, there were reports of record gasoline sales on Friday and of local banks facing depleted cash reserves from a surge in withdrawals when evacuation was a real possibility.

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.


Education/History Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.