History books say President Carter played a starring role during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident 40 years ago. And that Harold Denton, the country’s top industry regulator, did too. And Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh. And (perhaps as an anti-hero), Jack Herbein, vice president of the company that owned TMI.
But the people who lived nearby had the true leading roles in a drama that altered America’s energy economy and abides in the country’s popular culture.
On the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown, those voices most needed to be heard.
Led by PA Post, a partnership of news organizations asked people to share their stories, which drove the most prominent pieces of our monthlong anniversary coverage:
-The “I Remember TMI” online story wall with more than 200 recollections of those tense, uncertain days in the spring of 1979.
-The hourlong oral history radio program that aired across the state.
-Two public events, including one dedicated to residents’ experiences.
-Two 30-minute television documentaries that included residents’ stories.
We helped conduct the first public opinion polling on a legislative effort to subsidize the now-failing TMI plant. We participated in a Reddit ask-me-anything about the accident and its aftermath. And WITF’s live morning call-in talk show “Smart Talk” featured the anniversary several times.
Our coverage plan unlocked not only our community’s collective memory, but its energy and insight, and resulted in an audience-driven look back at a major U.S. historical event. Early on, we set up a dedicated email address and put out a call to people to tell us their stories. Those personal recollections trickled in at first. Then, as the anniversary neared, stories came flooding in.
Instead of selecting only a few memories to publish, we created an interactive page for all voices to be heard. One of those emailers said he had kept an audio diary at the time — and that he still had it. Parts of Chuck Kern’s diary appeared in the oral history, in one of the TV documentaries and in a three-part podcast about the accident. Kern also appeared at one of our public events, along with a physician who oversaw the evacuation shelter, and a woman whose family grappled with the decision to leave or stay home and risk the radiation.
We had planned a Q&A session after those panelists shared their experiences, but several people walked up to the emcee, basically took the microphone from his hands and told their own stories. One of them was Bill Dornsife, who told the crowd that he was Pennsylvania’s top nuclear engineer during the crisis. We invited Dornsife to be a panelist at the second public event — a screening of the two documentaries — and on a Smart Talk broadcast later in the month.
That’s how people who lived through TMI’s partial meltdown made our coverage deeper and more authentic than it otherwise would have been.