Listeners share memories of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown

Aerial view of Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., scene of a nuclear accident, Thursday, March 28, 1979. The plant started leaking radioactive steam contaminating the area. (AP Photo)

Aerial view of Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., scene of a nuclear accident, Thursday, March 28, 1979. The plant started leaking radioactive steam contaminating the area. (AP Photo)

Forty years ago, the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor​ terrified the residents​ who lived near the Pennsylvania facility. Contradictory alerts from government and industry officials confused some WHYY listeners who shared their memories of March 28​, 1979.

Jennifer Malme, a child at the time, said she still remembers the terror ​she felt.

“I was in third grade when the TMI accident happened. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I do remember being sent home early from school in Shippensburg (some 35 miles away from TMI). I lived across the street and three houses down from the school, so I had to walk. My teacher told me to run as fast as I could. And try not to breathe! I was terrified. We really didn’t know much back then.”

Robert Ryans was a senior at Dauphin High School outside Harrisburg.

“I remember vividly my principal coming over the public address system to tell us school was closing. Buses would be arriving soon to take us home, and we were to remain indoors with the windows closed. I still get chills when I think about this. His voice was quivering. The fear that he and all of us were feeling was palpable.”

Marcie Ziskind was a senior student at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

“One of my roommates came running into the dorm room, saying that we needed to ‘Get out now!’ She was in the geology department, and all of those professors were the first to find out and quickly left the area. After a day or two, the college finally urged the students to evacuate, but it wasn’t mandatory.”

Jim Cornwell was in the midst of another major event as the details of the meltdown were unfolding.

“Forty years ago today, while attending my wife in a labor room at Lankenau Hospital, I listened to intermittent radio news reports of the unfolding crisis at TMI — and occasionally glanced out a west-facing window, expecting to see a ghastly green glow appear at any moment in the night sky. The arrival of one’s firstborn isn’t supposed to happen under these circumstances, I thought. We should be fleeing to safety, I thought. Right now! So, hurry up! But how? A nerve-wracking evening, but all’s well that ends well. So happy birthday to our son!”

This concern for the safety of young children was widespread. As a young mother, April Baylock recalled the confusion she felt.

“I was living in Hellertown in the Lehigh Valley, with my newborn twins who were just 10 days old. I had two older children, ages 3 and 8. I remember hearing the news, and all I could think about was what was going to happen to our family? Where would you go, what would or could you do to protect yourself if the meltdown occurred?”

While the debate about the safety and efficacy of continuing to use nuclear power in Pennsylvania continues​, many who remember the Three Mile Island ​accident​ remain skeptical, if not frightened, of what might happen if another such incident should occur.

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