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'A mix up somewhere here'
'A little water spilt on the floor'
I drove through thick early morning traffic down river to the gate of the reactor.
Already a wire photographer was on hand, standing in front of the guard box, casually snapping pictures.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Search me. They just sent me out."
The plant's four cooling towers dominated the background.
The reactors occupied an island in a pretty bend in the river. We used to have to pass the nuclear plant when we took the magazine to the printer, just down the river. The colossal size of the two reactors always took you by surprise.
I went up to the guard box. The guard inside seemed cagey. "What's going on?"
"I don't know."
A dosimeter hung on his lapel. "What's that thing say?"
He looked down brusquely. "It's not important now."
At the gate: on the morning of the Three Mile Island accident I snapped this photo of nuclear workers first evacuating the plant. The guards at the gate are here sweeping each car with radiation counters. Click here or photo to enlarge.
Cars began streaming from the plant. A long line of cars came snaking off the island. They stopped at the main gate by the guardhouse. Two technicians hurried out, sweeping Geiger counters over each car.
It made you think this wasn't such a good place to hang out.
The main gate opened, the cars streamed out. They came one after another to the highway and turned right, wasting no time, tires spinning in the gravel. I heard one of the drivers say to another, "We're all supposed to go to the substation down the road to be tested for contamination."
One of the cars stopped at the road. I yelled over, asking if this was a drill.
"No. This ain't no drill." "Then it's a shift change?" "No. Now excuse me bud."
He rolled up his window, took off after the others. Forty or fifty cars streamed from the plant, stopped momentarily to be swept by Geiger counters at the gate, then barreled up the road out of sight. All the while the cooling towers hung in the background.
Some sort of wild frightening premonition swept over me.
The idea came to me to put five hundred miles between me and this place. I turned and started back to my car. I only took two or three steps, then I stopped. Maybe I should call some friends, I thought. Let them know the reactor's about to melt. It would be a kind, a thoughtful thing to do, a kindness I'd appreciate from a friend. But I wouldn't be able to reach most of the people I knew.
For a minute I stood watching the chaos. More reporters started showing up. I remembered reading that Mencken had cut his teeth on the great Baltimore fire. Gathering myself, I suggested to a few of the reporters that we split up,interview the neighbors living around the plant, then report back in fifteen minutes. We all went different ways. I interviewed an old couple working in their yard. I came up their lawn and asked if they knew what was going on.
Our friend the atom: nuclear workers evacuated to a nearby observation center where they watched the troubled reactor. Click here or photo to enlarge.
Both shook their heads, said they had no idea anything was wrong. In front of their home cars streamed bumper to bumper from the plant.
"Isn't it a drill?" the old man said. He was standing there with a rake. The old woman asked me if I cared for some tea.
I met the other reporters back at the gate.
"These people don't know anything about what's going on."
"None of these people have been told anything."
A reporter from the local daily paper showed up. He got out of his car in his tweed jacket, taking in the procession of cars leaving the plant.
"What's going on here?" he yelled over.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see there's something wrong with this picture."
I jumped in my car and joined the procession up the road.
I drove like a shot up to a little A-frame that had been built across the river from the reactor. The A-frame served as a tourist observation center. In quieter times people could come and look at posters and displays of Our Friend the Atom. Now helicopters carrying utility executives and network TV reporters spun down on the back lawn. I parked my car by the side of the road and hurried across the lawn. At the house next door little children played on a swing while, on the lawn at the front of the observation center, a team of dour radiation specialists came urgently by, sweeping the air and grass with Geiger counters.
"Team alpha to team beta," one of their walkie-talkies kept squawking. "Now sweeping the southeast quadrant of the island."
Nuclear picnic: evacuated nuclear workers sat talking things over at a picnic table.
Six or seven sullen plant workers sat at picnic tables calmly eating lunch. They watched smoke billow from a small stack near the reactor.
I went up to the table.
"What's going on? Is something wrong?"
"Even if there was what makes you think you could understand it?" one of them barked back.
They were eyeing my camera and tape recorder. No use making people freeze up. I ran back to the car and threw my reporter's gear in the trunk. I returned to the observation center and went inside. Plant workers huddled in small knots, nervously talking to each other in excited whispers. Two men sat whispering under a poster of Reddy Kilowatt. The one man's hands shook so badly I had to wonder if I'd made the right decision to stay. I wandered up to the second level. A wild-faced foreman burst out of a side room waving a clipboard, looking worried, not even trying to maintain composure.
"There's been a mix up somewhere here!" he yelled.
There was too much confusion for anyone to notice me. I went into a side room hoping to overhear something. Excited workers blabbed gibberish to each other. No one was listening. They were just the backward characters of my hometown, now with an atomic age problem dropped in laps better meant for bass fishing. I heard somebody say a company vice president had just touched down in a helicopter out back.
I went out for a look, sliding downstairs and out the back door. A man in a blue three-piece suit had just convened a press conference on the back lawn.
Helicopter rotor blades spun behind him while radiation teams swept the grass.
"Team alpha to team beta! Now sweeping the southwest quadrant of the island!"
'There's been a mix up somewhere here!'
"This was just a small mishap," the utility executive told a circle of reporters. He was almost drowned out by the radiation teams sweeping the grass around him. "Everything's under control. It was a normal anomaly. Just a little water spilt on the floor, that's all. The reactor will be shut down for a few weeks, I'd imagine." He made it sound like they were in there mopping things up now.
While he spoke the radiation teams fanned out, sweeping all around us, the grass, the trees, the buildings. Several reporters, not knowing much about radiation, asked the executive to compare the amout of water that had been spilled on the floor to a dental x-ray.
"Is this a meltdown?" I broke in.
The executive froze. Saying nothing, he hurried away inside the A-frame.
'Just a little water spilt on the floor' Met-Ed's vice president of generation Jack Herbein dishes bologna
I went around to the front of the observation center. State policemen stationed out front had just been issued dosimeters. A cardboard box full of the tube-like radiation measuring devices had been dropped on the side of the road. The cops were distributing them among themselves. They had no idea how to use them. One trooper pointed his dosimeter at the ground, twisting it like it was a kaleidoscope.
Out front a line of reporters had already gathered at a pay phone to call in stories. I had to stand in line nearly twenty minutes. When it was my turn I called the office and asked Sam, our community reporter, to hurry over with a couple stacks of the magazine in which the spontaneous human combustion expert had predicted a meltdown. Twenty minutes didn't go by when here came Sam and his buddy Max, dressed in his customary Hawaiian shirt, hauling a trunk load of the meltdown issue, which we wasted no time passing out to surprised reporters.
I drove home later that afternoon thinking only that it had been an interesting way to spend an afternoon. I gave little thought to the fact that I was the first writer on the scene of an important historical event.
Posted March 28, 2011
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