I will admit that it is starting to fade. It's been over 30 years and I was just a kid looking back, working in a job that was way outside my comfort zone. Lets just say that if it had ever occurred to me that they would hire me, I would never have gone to the interview just to appease my mother. Before 911 came to town, County Control and County Emergency Management departments shared the sub-basement at the courthouse in downtown Lancaster. I learned during the following 11 months that it takes a special kind of person to stay on the phone with victims of violent crimes, or to be involved in the most horribly intimate moments of strangers' lives on a daily basis, and it isn't me.
3rd shift can be boring in a job like that once the bars are all closed. We usually had 3 people on the police side of the room, and 2 others across the room working fire and ambulance. One slow night, I pulled out one of the procedure books. There were all kinds of worst case scenarios and little bits of information on what we should do. I recall reading that if, when answering one of the phones, the party on the other end said something like... "an ill wind blows from an island three miles north" it would mean an emergency on 3 Mile Island. There wasn't much about what was to be done after getting the call.
So the night that they actually did call, I guess they didn't have the procedure book handy because they didn't use the secret code. We believed them anyway. We were short-handed that night, and I think the 4 of us were playing cards. I can't remember exactly what time it was, but it seems like it was around 5 or 6. There was quite a bit of time left on the shift for everyone to freak out before shift change at 8. The accident had happened 2 or 3 hours earlier, but they didn't call for a couple of hours... I'm thinking they were too busy. The head of Emergency Management was in a car heading north for a meeting that day, and (before cell phones) when we requested many, many times that he find a phone and call in, he refused, demanding that we switch to a less popular radio channel and tell him what was going on. See a pattern developing here? Nobody seemed capable of following procedure. It wasn't that they didn't want to, it was that they didn't know it existed. We were all so complacent.
I remember answering phones for the next 2 hours. People reporting in that they were going on vacation, could the police keep an eye out? Sure... no problem. It was eerie, and I couldn't say a thing to anyone - not the policemen that were calling in that they were now on duty, not the people who thought they heard something funny on the scanner, nobody. I wanted to tell them to all run! There was an unspoken agreement that we would stay calm and quiet until we knew something real. At 8 o'clock, I went home and didn't tell my roommate before going to sleep. At 10 o'clock, the person in charge of Emergency Management called me and woke me. Was I SURE that nobody had called earlier. I reminded him (?!?) that all means of communication in to base were taped 24/7 and he could easily pull the tapes from the night before. Now they were saying that they'd called, but we hadn't responded in any way - not that it made one smidgen of difference. When I woke up later that afternoon, I told my roommate. It was on the news shortly afterward, but the news didn't resemble what I knew. The local college was starting to empty as parents came to pick up their kids. They were smart.
For the next week or 10 days, I would go to work each shift and shared the space now with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We had a red telephone in our office with no dial. You picked it up, and it went right to the White House. They all wore little glass dosimeters. Every day when I was not at work the television news would reassure me that the containment was holding and we were safe. Every night I would return to work to find that was not the case - nobody really knew, but the local news station wasn't about to tell us that. They just kept blathering away.
It wasn't that they were withholding information exactly. It was because it was very, very difficult to obtain any real idea of what was going on in there.
I hope that all these years later Japan has better means of reading the situation, but it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't. It was an enormous shock to me at the time to learn that our best and brightest didn't have any idea of what to do during TMI, but now I know how it is. We build and hope for the best - or at least that it will work until we aren't around to worry about it anymore.