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  • Table of Contents: What happened at Three Mile Island

  • Special Report: 20 Years Later

  •   Chapter 12
    Swiftly Gearing Up for Evacuation

    As the weekend passed the concentric circles on the evacuation maps at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency rippled farther and farther out from the bullseye of Three Mile Island.

    Three miles, 5 miles, 10 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles. On Sunday the last ring was added, sweeping in everything within 25 miles of the wounded atomic plant.

    It all looked very tidy.

    But no one in authority wanted to see the precision of maps and charts put to the ultimate test. No one, least of all Gov. Richard Thornburgh, wanted an evacuation.

    In the division of labor for managing the accident, Thornburgh had but one real responsibility, but it was in many ways the most awesome. He alone could trigger the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians from their homes. Almost as much as the reactor itself, Thornburgh could produce – through a mistake in judgment or a miscalculation in timing – a disaster.

    There is, in truth, something commonplace about evacuations. In almost any month, some Americans somewhere are forced from their homes by disaster – by flood or mud or a train wreck that releases a cloud of noxious chemicals. But most of them are nothing compared to the task facing Thornburgh in the early days of the crisis. And he knew it.

    Late Friday, after telling area residents that there would be no evacuation for the time being, he was talking privately to a reporter. How do you actually move hundreds of thousands of people out of the area, the reporter wondered. I don't know, the governor replied, but there is a plan.

    The responsibility for such a plan rested with the state Emergency Management Agency. Its top officials are former military officers: Col. Oren K. Henderson, who carried with him the notoriety of association with the Mylai massacre in Vietnam; Col. Charles (Charlie) Crowe, a blunt, no-nonsense West Point graduate; Clarence Deller, a former Navy captain.

    The agency had been gearing UP since Deller first received word at 7:02 a.m. Wednesday that there was an emergency at Three Mile Island. Everyone soon learned that, in an emergency, they could move swiftly. "Before this, if someone had asked me how long it would take this office to prepare a 10- or 20-mile evacuation, I would have responded that, with a concentrated effort, we could do it in several months," Henderson said later. "But with everyone pitching in together, it took us only a few days."

    Each colored circle on the maps on the agency's walls meant more: more people to move out, more evacuation centers to designate, more food, beds, clothing and other supplies to requisition. More confusion.

    An evacuation of everyone within five miles of the plant would affect 24,522 people. Ten miles meant 133,672. Twenty meant 636,073. That's where it stood Friday evening.

    "Suddenly, out of the clear-blue sky, you were faced with planning on a much wider magnitude," Henderson said. Still, there was a set sequence on paper for launching the exodus. Under the most normal condition, the state Department of Environmental Resources would notify Henderson if radiation levels were dangerously high. Henderson would tell the lieutenant governor, who would tell the governor, who would make the decision.

    State officials would then contact county civil defense authorities, who would spread the word to their emergency teams. The state, through radio and television stations, would warn the public.

    But federal officials, who were monitoring developments at the plant, had their own contingency for issuing a warning – agreed upon by President Carter, Joseph Hendrie, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Harold R. Denton, the NRC's top man on the scene. If there was time, Denton would call Hendrie who would call Gov. Thornburgh. If there wasn't Denton was to call the governor direct.

    As the planning continued, a sequence of events set into motion an incremental evacuation.

    On Friday, Thornburgh recommended that pregnant women and preschool children within five miles of the plant leave the area. The vanguard of women and children gathered at Hershey Sports Arena, which had been stockpiled with cots, blankets and food.

    On Saturday, Hendrie warned that evacuation of an area 10 to 20 miles from the plant might be necessary because of the bubble of hydrogen gas.

    By the weekend, thousands of people – estimates ranged from 80,000 to 200,000 – voluntarily had left their homes for safer ground. Their departure would lessen the chaos of any officials order to evacuate.

    Still. everyone knew that an evacuation could bring the ultimate traffic jam that would turn an orderly dispersal into a knot of violent confusion. It left open the danger of looting, it meant lost money – through lost wages, lost sales and insurance payments to those ordered to leave. "Evacuation is not something you undertake lightly," Thornburgh would say later in a startling understatement.

    But by the time President Carter arrived in Pennsylvania on Sunday, evacuation had been brought to the brink of inevitability. It would be a "precautionary" evacuation affecting residents up to 20 miles downwind of the plant. It would come just before the scientists attacked the bubble of hydrogen gas.

    Everyone knew: It would come Tuesday.

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