Sunday, March 29, 2009

30 years ago yesterday..lucky so far for us.

30 years ago yesterday, I was a graduate student at Penn State Capitol Campus, which is less than 3 miles from Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, just south of Harrisburg PA, and right near the International Airport there. I was working on my Masters in PsychoSocial Science/Community Psychology degree, and had a part time job as an RA which helped pay my tuition, or rent, cant remember..but it was a job that I liked. Part time counselor, sometimes welcome person, sometimes organizer, photographer..whatever needed to be done. We (my hubby and I) lived in student housing just off the campus in Meade Heights, which used to be a military housing area...Air Force I think...simple duplexes of brick- 2 or 3 BRs, with nice big yards, very level and flat..which was mainly for the grad students, married or not..lots of nice people and students lived there...not many children. Nothing fancy, but it was pleasant. Walk to the campus in 15-20 minutes, or drive for less than 5 minutes. Sometimes that was better to drive because a lot of classes were at night, and in the winter you didnt want to walk through the woods alone in the dark to get back home.

March 28th, 1979. I was having car trouble. I had a rinky dink gold colored Maverick. Still, it was my car and it did what it needed to do, usually. I needed a new carborator was suggested, so I went shopping around to find the best place/price to have it replaced. We stopped at multiple gas stations to get estimates. It was a beautiful day- blue skies, warm temps, quite different than the usual frosty winter. My sister in law Cheri, or maybe she was still my future sister in law at that time, went with me. She was also going to school at our Penn State campus. I remember we also stopped at a book store that featured a lot of used books from a library, on a sidewalk sale. We bought some great books for 50 cents each..hardbacks! We spent most of the day out and about...walking around under beautiful blue skies with pretty clouds, and the suddenly warmer spring winds were circular..leaves dancing in circles on the pavements. We were also enjoying the sunshine. Lots of children were playing outside... on this lovely warm day after the cold winter. The nuclear meltdown was happening at this time, and the radioactivity was being spread in every direction, due to the lovely and windy day. We didn't know it yet.

That night, back home, I got a phone call around 10 PM or so, from a friend of ours at school. He was an engineering student, and had a part time job at Three Mile Island. He also lived just down the street from us..with 3 other guys. His name is Jim G. When I answered the phone, he said he was at TMI, working, and that there was an accident at the nuclear power plant, and that we should pack up some stuff and get out of the area ASAP.

I was confused. What kind of accident? I told P- my hubby, who had to commute 75 miles to work everyday, that we needed to leave. He said no..crazy. We argued. I phoned the police and the fire department to see if there was any report of an accident at the nuclear power plant. They said absolutely reports, not true. But I believed my friend, packed some of my books and study materials, and headed to my aunt and uncles house who lived all the way over in Hershey, about 10 miles away, thinking I better be safe than sorry. I left my cat at home..bad idea. With P. And sad that we had quarrelled and separated.

Another bad idea..10 miles is not far enough away. Plus take the cat, the hubby, and anything else you happen to care about that can fit in a car. (Sister in law took off too- back home, dropped out of school, and went somewhere else to finish later.)

Two days later, after President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Thornburg declared a state of emergency, I had to come back and evacuate all those living in our student neighborhood with pregnant women, and or children, to leave the area. I knocked on about 25 or 30 doors and talked to the student residents, giving them the warnings and telling them to leave. That was part of my job as an RA (resident assistant). The next morning, I had a rash/burn on my lower chin...and I never have skin/pimple problems, so I knew it was not good. It lasted for a few days, and then went away finally. Luckily, all my face is still fine to this day.

Meanwhile, the state set up medical testing sites in Middletown to determine the amount of radiation we had received, as the TMI facilities showed that the amounts had pegged at the top of the air testing levels on their meters. We, as the local community did also, got in line and had body scans for radiation...sort of like an MRI. We were never informed as to what our rates were. But they said there would be ongoing follow ups and that we would be part of a study of the accident. Meanwhile, the NRA conducted hearings at our school, and testimonies of what and why, and who was responsible. P and I were there, front row center, and friends phoned us from around the country to say they saw us on the news at the hearings. For a few years, about every 5 years, I got a questionaire in the mail about the state of our health. That stopped about 10 or 15 years ago..I dont remember when I got the last one.

A day or two later, after the accident, everyone was evacuated. Well, kind of. School was suspended and people kind of left for about 2 weeks, then most everyone came back. I have some pics of the days, but my scanner isnt being recognized by my computer right now, and even so, I would have to search for the pics. 30 years ago? Where are those albums?
Hubby and I left with kitty to Northern Virginia to live with my in laws for two weeks. Classes were cancelled, delayed.

We returned, but I opted out to finish my classes remotely..checking in with the profs for papers and work remotely. I was almost ready to graduate. We packed up soon afterward and moved. Life did go on in Middletown and the school though. We moved to Chambersburg PA, quite close to hubbys work and far from TMI. I got pregnant and had a miscarriage in late Jan. 1980, at 3 months of pregnancy (extreme sadness). The TMI accident was in March 1979. It could have been nature, or not, no one knows. My kitty was fine though. And I graduated, and co wrote a paper about the experience with one of my Sociology profs that got published in a journal.

Anyway, we have been lucky..the people that were there- our friends and fellow students, teachers, the local community..most of us anyway, that I know of. But I also wanted to share with you something else. I hope you will take the time and interest to check it out.


  1. you may remember the new year's eve party that you took f & I to across the way from tmi when we visited you and p; I was freaked out being so close to the nuke plant (and this was before the accident) I insisted we leave early. which we did. I get the heebie jeebies anytime I'm near a reactor.

    since you enjoyed the motorcycle gal's site, you might also enjoy martin cruz smith's novel wolves eat dogs.... I understand, the story was in part partially inspired by that woman. it is a powerful novel and I expect paul would also enjoy it.

  2. Hey Aunt Paula..Hope you don't mind but I shared this story with my Corporate Social Responsibility teacher. We were talking about three mile island today in class and I had just read your blog, so I found it appropriate to bring up. Anyways, hope all is well.
    Love, Jenn

  3. I don't think you ever told me that deeply in depth of the story... I can see why you point it out every time we pass by now. Definitely an event not to ever forget

  4. Wow, yeah I only really heard a few of the details of the story as well. Truly tragic. These are interesting times we live in, with the US disassembling their arsenals for the next 20 years plus and new countries building and developing nuclear arsenals and reactors. Interesting article about where nuclear weapons go to die here ->