Originally published in 2008
If you can't see it, it isn't there.
That was the reassurance bridesmaids and family gave bride-to-be Stephanie (Deardorff) Merrifield as she prepared to marry on March 31, 1979 - three days after the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.
On March 28 the plant in Middletown experienced a partial meltdown. A 20-mile radius around the town was put on alert for a possible evacuation. Pregnant women and young children were advised to leave.
Gov. Dick Thornburgh canceled appointments that day, without explanation, including one with West Manchester Township resident James Shindler, who later packed up to leave with his wife.
Teachers closed classroom windows and pulled down the blinds. They refused to let the students go outside, much less home, for several hours.
If you can't see it, it isn't there.
For some, the threat was as clear as the plumes that usually flowed from the power plant's towers.
Karl Kuykendall of East Manchester Township saw fear in his junior high school teachers' faces when school was dismissed without explanation.
He saw the fear again when he got home and found both parents talking about meltdowns and explosions. "They didn't know what to do. Should we get in the car and leave? Should we wait and see?" Kuykendall said. "It was powerful, but scary. I remember the look on my dad's face."
Jill Thompson of Spring Garden Township, who was working at a local radio station, kept listeners up-to-date with news wire releases, but desperately wanted to go home. "I was scared," she said. "I wanted to run."
Pet owners flooded Yorkshire Animal Hospital, dropping off their animals as they headed out of town in bumper-to-bumper traffic, car windows and air vents closed. No one asked what would happen to their pets if the caretakers left.
But Merrifield's bridesmaids refused to see the fear.
Staunch in their support of the young bride, they sunbathed outside.
They couldn't see it, so it wasn't there.
But at the reception, they partied as though they could see no future.
Here is Merrifield, 49, of York Township's memory:
"I got married on March 31, 1979.
So on the 28th, I was having my college roommates fly in from various areas of the U.S. I thought that my wedding wouldn't happen because we were all going to die. But they were really great and they said, 'If you can't see it, it isn't there.'
And everyone came. My brother and sister-in-law had a 6-month-old baby. They thought about leaving, but they were both in the wedding so they chose to stay.
It turned out that only two people that said they were coming, didn't come and the rest of the people invited to the wedding came.
. . . We had one of the biggest parties ever. I don't know why, I guess we all thought we were going to die the next day.
One of our friends made signs for our car that said: Just married and already we have fall-out.
But we're still married."
* * *
Veterinary hospital filled quickly
Clients and nonclients were rushing in to board their animals. The facilities became quickly over-full.
I do not recall even one animal owner present asking me on admission, "If and when you leave your premises, what happens to my animal you now have?"
. . . I do not recall when above animal owners returned for pick up, but it was brief, like a couple of days.
Dr. Harold C. Neibert of Yorkshire Animal Hospital
Birthday was a downer
At the time of Three Mile Island, I was 9 years old. It was the day before my birthday. . . . I was going to say goodbye to all of my friends. We were packing up to go stay with relatives in Georgia.
It was not only a day to remember, it was not a very good birthday. Also very scary for a 9-year-old.
Dawn Neff, Spring Grove
Bank dealt with angry customers
I was teaching in York City in the elementary school at McKinley. . . . Information came forward that we were to dismiss the students and that they were to go directly home.
I also worked part time at a bank. I went to my family, got them together, and we decided to exit the town. I . . . worked my shift at the bank. We had a deluge of people that wanted to get their money, all of it out, and we started to comply with that, until the money started to run out.
The decision was made that we ought to arrive on Saturday morning, that we were responsible to the people of York, to be there for their money.
. . . I got my family out of the area, and I returned. To stave off the rush of the withdrawal of money, we limited the amount of money at the branch that people could withdrawal. I believe it was $250 at the time. Dealt with a lot of angry customers who indicated that this was their money, they deserved (it). Although, we said that in order for there to be enough for everybody, we're sorry, but this was how it needed to be done.
. . . It was a startling event for all of us, a waking call.
Harry Carnahan, 59, Springettsbury Township
Student told to stay inside classroom
March 28, 1979, is one of those days in my life that I will never forget. I was 12 years old and a seventh-grade student at Eastern High School.
. . . At the time of the announcement . . . I was sitting in third period science class with my teacher. . . . At that time, the teachers were instructed to close all of the window blinds, and at first we were not permitted to leave the classroom we were in. After awhile, we were permitted to leave that class. And a few hours after that announcement was made, we were told we'd have to remain in the class for the rest of the day.
I remember being very, very scared and all I wanted to do was to go home and be in the comfort of my family. Eventually, the notice did come down from the school that we could go home. I think I was more afraid of not being able to go home than I was of a nuclear explosion. I mean, I was 12 years old, what did I know what a nuclear explosion was.
Jamie Raffensberger, 41, Springettsbury Township
8-year-old's mom packed their suitcases to leave
I remember that day very well. I was 8 years old. I was in second grade. We were released to go outside to recess. When we got outside, we were the only classroom to be released, which was wonderful. That means we got to get to the slides first, the swings first, before anyone else. We were surprised by that because usually you had to wait your turn for everything.
So we were out there on the blacktop, thinking we were very lucky to be out there first, when one of the school staff looked out the window, saw us, opened the door, and yelled, "What are you doing outside? The teachers weren't to be releasing you."
. . . The next thing I remember about the incident then was that same day. We were released from school early and I was at home, and my mom had my just not-quite-1-year-old sister on her hip, rushing around with a suitcase, packing a suitcase, saying we had to go. We actually did never end up going, but our suitcases stayed packed for days and days.
Erin Gibson, 37, Glen Rock
Mom feared she wouldn't see home again
I was working that day, I was working at an orthodontist office. I heard it on the news about the possibility of a meltdown. My children at the time were 9 and 11, and I rushed home . . . We were really, really frightened. Amazingly so, we took nothing except our children, and got in the car and left, and went to go to our family's home in New Jersey. Interestingly enough, my husband wasn't alarmed as I was. He said, "Well, if you really want to leave, you drive." And I never did that before, but I did anyway.
. . . We weren't sure we'd ever see our home again.
Adele Naglieri, Springettsbury Township
ABOUT THE SERIES
The Remember series is an ongoing feature that challenges readers to remember poignant moments in personal, local and national history. Each month, we're asking readers to share their memories on different topics. From those who call, we'll select one to video, and post audio files of the other memories on the Web. We'll also publish several of the responses in the newspaper.
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