"I knew Karen Silkwood better than anyone here," Steven Wodka said, munching on a corn chip.
It was a simple statement of fact. It was Wodka who had waited at an Oklahoma City Holiday Inn for Karen Silkwood to meet with him and a New York reporter that November evening in 1974. She said she had documented evidence of sloppy safety practices at the Kerr-McGee nuclear facility where she was a plutonium worker.
Karen Silkwood never made it. On the way to the meeting, her car went off the road, hit a culvert, and she was killed.
"I feel vindicated," said Wodka, the 30-year old, Washington-based representative of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union.
So did most of the other people who gathered Sunday night for a "Silkwood party" to celebrate the court award of $10.5 million in punitive damages to the family of the woman who has become the cause celebre of women's and evironmental organizations, and labor unions. A smattering of those interests was in the roomy, comfortably unkempt Takoma Park home of Kitty Tucker, who spear-headed the campaign for public support for the Silkwood suit, along with Sarah Nelson, from the National Organization for (NOW).
"Most of the public information about the Silkwood case was produced here." said Bob Alvarez, Tucker's husband, who works for the Environmental Policy Center, a lobbying group. In the hallway near the staircase was a four-foot-high pile of newsletters, from the Supporters of Silkwood (SOS), the organization Tucker and Nelson started. The papers are the remains of the literature they churned out and mailed nationwide, often using their own money for postage.
In the dining room, while guests spread out the food for the potluck supper, tucker soberly taped on the wall a black-and-white poster bearing a picture of Silkwood, her name, the dates of her birth and death, 1946-1974. It read: "DEAD BECAUSE SHE KNEW TOO MUCH?"
It has never been proven that Silkwood's car was deliberately forced off the road, but the union's investigator claims there is evidence it was. Shortly before her death, Silkwood, who was active in her union, became contaminated with highly radioactive plutonium. She claimed it was due to company negligence. But the company, Kerr-McGee, argued Silkwood had contaminated herself to embarrass them. The federal jury ruled Kerr-McGee was negligent.
Long before the court trial, Tucker had read about the company's claim that Silkwood had contaminated herself. Angered by the charge, she set out to keep interest in the case high.
Tucker pushed her baby girl Amber, in her stroller, over to Sarah Nelson's un-air-conditioned house one steamy summer day in 1975, to meet with Wodka, who encouraged them to pursue the Silkwood case.
After the FBI closed the investigation of the Silkwood car accident, Tucker and Karen DeCrow of NOW went to Justice Department officials and asked them to investigate the plant safety practices Silkwood had claimed were so inadequate.
"They said, 'you're watched too much TV if you think all cases are ever solved,'" Tucker recalled. She smiled vaguely at the recollection, her blue eyes intense but calm.
The Statute of limitations had almost run out on the case in 1976 and Silkwood supporters still didn't have lawyers. "All the lawyers they had contacted wanted $25,000 up front," Alvarez said.
But Tucker pursued Danny Sheehan, known for his public interest work. From Antioch Law School, where she was a student and a part-time guard, she telephoned him. There were only a couple of weeks before the statute ran out. She convinced Sheehan he should become involved. He did, and called another lawyer he knew. The ACLU recommended a lawyer, and another volunteered.
"We'll keep organizing," Tucker said. "There will probably be a second trial on civil charges." (Those are charges that Karen Silkwood was electronically surveyed and wiretapped.)
Tucker and Alvarez, both 35, seem the embodiment of 1960s social conscience grown up in the '70s. When they lived in Eugene, Ore., they worked in a free health clinic. Later, Tucker was an organizer for an impeach-Nixon campaign. She has finished class work at Antioch Law School, which stresses public interest law, and is writing a thesis on workers' compensation and radiation induced injury.
On the back porch of their house, guests included a man from the Solar Lobby, several members of the Tennessee cooperative known as The Farm-all with below-shoulder length hair and rich full beards. One man had just hung out his shingle as a "Rolfer" (one who practices a special form of tissue massage, or manipulation).
"I'm kind of amazed at the outcome of this," said Mary Ann Joyce, once the treasurer for Supporters of Silkwood (SOS), "because when I first met Kitty (Tucker) at a meeting it seemed like David vs. Goliath. I thought it would be impossible for her to get anywhere. I've learned a big lesson from this. If you're right and you persevere, you can win." CAPTION: Picture, Dancing at Sunday's "Silkwood Party" are, from left, Ada Sanchez, Bob Alvarez, Marion Edey and Kitty Tucker. By Linda Wheeler-The Washington Post.