Q: Do you remember what your first reactions were when you heard something
MG: Yes. I was living on Gower Street in Hollywood at that time. I had
written the original screenplay for "The China Syndrome." The movie had come
out 12 days earlier. It was released on March the 16th, 1979, and at that
moment it was playing in 800 theaters which, in 1979, was a maximum release.
And the reason was, of course, it was a Jane Fonda-Jack Lemmon-Michael Douglas
picture. And at that point Jane Fonda was at the apex of a brilliant career.
You had to wait in line for one full show in order to get in to see that movie
on that previous Tuesday morning. But when the accident occurred, I got a
phone call from Michael Douglas. I was working and I didn't have the radio on.
The phone rings and Michael Douglas says, "Have you heard about the accident at
Three Mile Island?" "What's happened?" He describes it briefly. Immediately,
I can tell, from what little he knows, that this is something that's off the
scale of our previous experience. And Douglas said, "Look, whatever you do,
don't answer any questions to the press. Our position is no comment. If we
say anything about this, everybody's going to assume we're trying to take
advantage of a disaster in order to sell this movie. And we don't want to be
put in that position." I said, "I quite agree." So everyone involved with the
picture agreed at that time our position is, whenever we were asked, "No
comment." And I immediately got several phone calls from reporters. "No
comment." The next call I got was from Yan Weiner at Rolling Stone Magazine.
He's a friend of Michael Douglas' and he asked if I would go to Three Mile
Island to cover the accident. And at that point I had just spent five years
researching and writing this screenplay for this movie, and I was one of the
handful of people in the country who actually had a clear idea of what might be
happening at Three Mile Island. And Harrisburg, I can promise you, was the
absolute last place on the planet I wanted to be that day. But, you know, I'm
always up for a story. So, I went to the LAX and, unfortunately, United
Airlines was in the middle of an airlines strike on that day and air traffic
was screwed up all over the country. I went to the TWA desk and I said,
"Listen, my name is Mike Gray. I wrote the screenplay for 'China Syndrome' and
I need to get to Harrisburg." And the guy said, "Just a minute," and he went
back and got the supervisor. The supervisor came out and said, "Mr. Gray,
you're on the next flight. We can't get you to Harrisburg. The airport at
Harrisburg has been officially closed as of three hours ago, but we've got
[unintelligible] into Pittsburgh. Here's your ticket. Thank you very much." So
that was one time when being a Hollywood screenwriter actually paid off. And I
got the flight into Harrisburg.
I called a friend of mine, P. Michael O'Sullivan, a still photographer, a great
ex-"Life Magazine" photographer. I said, "Go to Harrisburg. Find the bar
that's the closest to the plant and I'll meet you there in the time that it
takes me to reach Three Mile Island." So he took off from Chicago, I took off
from LA. I landed in Pittsburgh and I rented a car in Pittsburgh and headed
east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That night I was the only car eastbound on
the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There was lots of westbound traffic, but nobody
headed east. And, unfortunately, you know there are those tunnels. Every time
I'd be listening to the radio and they'd say, "And now, this word just in from
Harrisburg," poom, and I'd go into a tunnel then. So I had no idea what the
actual situation was, but I knew that it was deteriorating.
Q: What's going through your head as you're driving there?
MG: As I approached Harrisburg that night, unlike a lot of people who really
had no idea what was going on there, I had a real serious suspicion that this
was a major, major event. Because of the way that the press comments from the
people in the plant had been phrased. In fact, several people had noted
already in newscasts that there was a serious similarity between the statements
given by the public relations people at Three Mile Island and the PR man in the
movie that I had just written, "The China Syndrome." That in fact, you could
take the speeches and pretty much trade them, "No danger to the public at any
time," "No release of radiation." Then you find out a little while later, "Oh,
yes, there was a release of radiation, but it wasn't very much." "Oh, well,
maybe it was a little more than we thought." And it had this escalating
quality. So as I approached Harrisburg that night, I was apprehensive, to say
the least. But, on the other hand, you know, it's like combat photography.
You figure maybe this'll be the great story, or whatever, and so you go into it
anyway, even though you may get shot. But there was definitely a sensation
that some of us were able to get shot, no question about it. And the next
morning, after we had a chance to reconnoiter and get the lay of the land,
O'Sullivan and I got in my car and drove toward the plant and we got lost on
one of these roads south of Harrisburg. And we pulled over into a filling
station and said, "Can you tell us how to get to Middletown?" And the guy
said, "You go down this road to the end to that stoplight down there. Turn
left. It'll be the second empty town that you come to." And that was pretty
much what we found. When we got into Middletown, the streets were -- people
had pretty much taken their own counsel and decided to get out of the way.
But, the town was by then, of course, filling up with press. By the middle of
the afternoon of the first day there were some three or four hundred reporters
already in Harrisburg. And there were people arriving from all over the world.
By noon on Thursday you could go into the tavern in downtown Middletown, the
little town closest to the Three Mile Island plant, and you could hear Japanese
and Chinese, French and German, and practically every other language as
reporters were arriving from all over the world. And one of the driving
forces behind this sudden attention was the movie. The accident at Three Mile
Island was so closely paralleled to the situation that existed in "The China
Syndrome." One story that I heard later was that at -- I believe it was at the
"New York Daily News" -- at one of the major New York dailies the managing
editor stood up on his desk and shouted to the city room, or whatever, "Who
here has seen 'The China Syndrome'?" Three guys raised their hand. He said,
"You, you, you, you're goin' to Harrisburg." And so the movie that we had
created, intended as a warning for people to take a look at this potentially
flawed and dangerous technology, turned out not to be a warning at all. The
accident that happened was worse than the one that we postulated in the movie.
So the movie then became a briefing film for the press.
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