Back in time to ‘79: TMI big scare turns 40

By on March 27, 2019

It began overnight 40 years ago. When Lititz residents awoke on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, they began to hear vaguely of some sort of problem at TMI.

As the next few days wore on, the news became more alarming. People were glued to their TV sets, hearing words like “meltdown” and “nuclear disaster.” There was talk of evacuating, but where?

How bad was it? Nerves were on edge as the public awaited news. Many did indeed leave the area.

“I was working as a juvenile probation officer in Lancaster County, and we were hearing about a possible mushroom cloud,” recalls Jim Commins of Lititz. “I remember getting pretty concerned when we were told there was nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Linda Stone was about to be married in May. She was supposed to go for her final wedding dress fitting in the Lebanon area that weekend. The shop called to cancel the appointment. She wondered, “Are we even going to get married at all?”

Don Campbell was busy selling advertising in downtown Lititz that morning and didn’t hear about TMI until he got back to the newspaper office. Everyone was worried and trying to decide if they should evacuate. Campbell and his wife made plans to evacuate to Potter County with their two sons if needed.

Bill Brandt with his dog Suchie, showing a the evacuation map that was being planning for TMI back in March 1979.

Karen Eckert was on vacation with her family in Florida. They were all set to return home when they heard about TMI on the national news. She looks back, remembering, “We were horrified. We didn’t know if we should come back or wait, or just stay there.”

Mike Snyder was in Baltimore on business that Friday. He wondered the same thing. Was it safe to come home? Would his home still be there? He made arrangements with his wife to meet up with her and their baby son at her family’s place near Cape May, just to be safe.

For William Brandt, who now lives in Lititz with his wife Aileen, the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant hit far closer to home than many. Back in 1979, William Brandt was Coordinator of Office Building Administration at AMP Inc. in nearby Lower Swatara Township. He was also an ASIS Member and Chairman of the Committee on Contingency Planning For Disasters from 1975 to 1982. He and his family were living in nearby Chambers Hill.

At the time few people even knew what TMI was. The new Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 had only been operating for three months. There was a lot if confusion about what was going on at TMI. Later, it was determined that the accident had caused a partial meltdown of the reactor core. That resulted in a significant setback for the nuclear power industry in the United States.

As Brandt later learned, the accident, which occurred around 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, was caused by a combination of human error, design deficiencies, and equipment failures.

Ironically, on the same day that the TMI accident occurred, Brandt was attending a committee meeting for the American Society for International Security in his office building at AMP Inc. They wouldn’t realize what was happening just down the road in Middletown until later.

Bill Brandt back in 1979 when he was Coordinator of Office Building Administration at AMP Inc. He was responsible for the security of all the AMP Inc. buildings within a 25-mile radius of Harrisburg.

“On Friday morning two of my employees who were active members of Volunteer Fire Companies in Swatara Township came to my office to request permission to leave, since all fire companies were put on alert because of an incident at TMI,” says Brandt, who quickly granted that permission, with full pay.

Brandt was responsible for the security of all the AMP Inc. buildings within a 25-mile radius of Harrisburg. In a meeting with the chief of police for Lower Swatara Township and elected supervisor Sten Reber, Brandt learned that the Pennsylvania Army National Guard was coordinating the evacuation plan for all of Central Pennsylvania. Brandt remembers seeing a Geiger counter sitting on the chief’s desk.

“As an active member and legal clerk of the 28th Division Headquarters Company JAG and with my responsibilities for the security of AMP Inc. I went to the National Guard site in Hershey and identified myself, requesting that they share their plans for an evacuation,” says Brandt.

The plans that were being developed would have split families into four different locations from New Stanton, Pa. to the west, State College to the northwest, Hazelton to the northeast and Chester County to the southeast.

“We can be thankful to Gov. Richard Thornburgh for putting a hold on this plan going into action,” says Brandt, noting that his youngest daughter would have ended up in the New Stanton area, his two older daughters in the Hazelton area, and his wife at the time in the State College area.

The family quickly set up a plan to contact his brother in Dallas, Texas. if they were separated, so that they could be reunited eventually.

“When I returned to my office and the first thing I noticed was that the American flag in front of the building showed that the wind was blowing from TMI toward our buildings,” says Brandt, who advised that all the AMP Inc. buildings in the Harrisburg area shut down their air intakes immediately.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The event, which happened March 28, 1979 remains the nation’s worst commercial nuclear accident.

At the offices, panic was setting in. With 1,000 employees in just one building, telephone lines were jammed, no one was working and some people were crying. They decided to have pregnant employees and mothers with children at home leave immediately for safety’s sake. Plans were underway to move the offices to a temporary location outside the danger area. Security guards were being arranged to provide security to the AMP Inc. offices near Harrisburg. Fliers were prepared that would be distributed throughout the area should a total evacuation be ordered by the governor.

“I remained in the area throughout the weekend and served as the liaison between AMP Inc. and Swatara Township. I also remained visible to the security guards on duty that they had not been deserted, and I was there with their officers to support them and keep them in the loop of what was happening,” says Brandt.

When helicopters flying over TMI reported increased radiation levels, the Brandt family got ready to evacuate. His wife, daughters, and their puppy headed south to Kent Island on the Chesapeake in Maryland, where Brandt’s father had a cottage. They intended to get the whole family to Texas, where Brandt would later meet up with them at his brother’s place. That wasn’t necessary. On Monday morning, an all clear order was issued. The crisis was over. Employees could return to work. Brandt’s family returned from Kent Island.

Later in September of 1979, Brandt attended an ASIS Conference in Detroit, with speakers that included Harold Denton of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Tom Sullivan, Secretary of the Department of Transportation and the Secretary of Emergency Management.

“I was also privileged to have Sten Reber, supervisor for Lower Swatara Township, who chaired President Jimmy Carter’s Campaign for President in Pennsylvania, as my connection to get these high level individuals from Washington to speak to us,” says Brandt.

Brandt will never forget something that Denton shared with them. Had there been a complete melt down like Chernobyl, Pennsylvania could have become a “No Man’s Land” from the Carlisle Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Morgantown Interchange.

“That was a sobering thought, when you think of what could have happened,” says Brandt. “It’s hard to imagine that was 40 years ago.”

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the pages of the Record Express. She welcomes feedback and story tips at

One Comment

  1. J. Hartman

    March 28, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    My husband was off that day, but when he returned worked two shifts, then off for 8 hours to sleep. He was one of those in the helicopters! I left our house in E-town and went down to friends in Delaware with our boys, just to be safe. Scary times!

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