This past Wednesday marked the thirty-third anniversary of the worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S history. As the crisis that resulted in a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island Power Plant began on March 28, 1979, Cecil County Civil Defense was deeply involved in testing the area’s preparedness for a nuclear disaster. The primary task for the agency with Cold War roots was protection of civilian populations during wartime, so the exercise scenario involved a nuclear attack on major Atlantic seaboard cities. During the course of that day, as operators at the generating station 40 miles from the county’s northwestern border struggled to bring the reactor under control, local officials simulated situations “involving a full range of anticipated trouble, from overcrowded fallout shelters to rioting and looting,” the Cecil Democrat reported. At the end of the day, “things had gone very well,” John J. Ward, the director of Civil Defense advised.
But at Three Mile Island things weren’t going well and over the next few days the incident triggered national alarm. By Friday night, the third day of the incident, the possibility of a meltdown had become real and a growing hydrogen bubble caused worry about an explosion. Struggling to get ahead of this rapidly changing crisis and wanting to make sure they were doing everything possible for public health and safety Pennsylvania officials developed plans to evacuate up to 636,000 people on short notice. The mass evacuation zone included Harrisburg and parts of six counties within a 25-mile radius of the plant.
To support such a massive relocation, Governor Dick Thornburgh called for representatives from other states to attend an urgent weekend conference in Lancaster. There, John J. Ward, the Director, Henry Metz, assistant, Rachel Gray, and Mike Dixon learned that Cecil should prepare to receive 2,000 to 6,000 residents from Lancaster County.
Cecil’s Civil Defense agency immediately started preparations over that long weekend thirty-three years ago, as worried Harrisburg area residents warily listened to news broadcasts. Working late into the night to develop a plan for the influx which would occur if an evacuation was ordered traffic routes were selected beginning at the Mason-Dixon Line. The Fair Hill Race Track and the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center were to serve as channeling points for the incoming traffic. On those spacious grounds, evacuees would be provided with whatever urgent aid they required, including monitoring for possible radiation contamination, before being assigned to a temporary shelter.
The county’s radiological officers assigned to fallout shelters, fire stations, hospitals, and other public buildings pulled out their radiation detection equipment, which they’d used a few days earlier for the exercise. Reexamining those Geiger Counters and Dosimeters, they made sure the cold war instruments were ready should the situation escalate.
Places where 6,000 people could be fed and housed around the county were pinpointed. Churches, fire halls, schools, community centers and other sites where emergency housing and food services could be provided were selected, the Director of Red Cross, Ralph Hicks, reported. There were also plans for Port Deposit and Perryville, including the Veterans Administration Hospital, if the Susquehanna River became polluted by radioactivity as both towns drew drinking water from the river, according to the Cecil Democrat.
Before the weekend was over Cecil’s emergency responders stood ready to assist the Commonwealth if the dreaded call came. Sitting in the Civil Defense Headquarters, two stories under the courthouse, fire, health, social services, and Red Cross leaders briefed each other on final preparations as they doubled checked their rushed work and stayed in constant contact with Pennsylvania via sophisticated radio networks.
While the order for a mass evacuation never came as the threat at the plant eventually subsided, Cecil County emergency officials spent a tense week watching events unfold at the island in the Susuquehanna River.