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Meltdown at Three Mile Island | Article

News Director, WKBO

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Mike Pintek

It was Mike Pintek's job to know what was going on in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Twenty-seven-year-old Pintek was the news director at radio station WKBO and a life-long resident of the county. On March 28, 1979, Pintek's traffic reporter Dave "Captain Dave" Edwards was cruising the streets of Dauphin County in his trademark yellow Camaro (the small radio station could not afford a traffic helicopter) when he began to hear an unusual amount of activity on his CB scanner. Edwards phoned Pintek to inform him that the Middletown police and fire departments were mobilizing. Then Edwards mentioned that he hadn't seen any steam coming out of the power plant's cooling towers. Edwards assumed that the plant had shut down for some reason. Hearing this, Mike Pintek began to make some calls. No one at the Dauphin County Civil Defense office knew what was going on. Pintek then decided to call Three Mile Island. To his surprise, a harried switchboard operator put Pintek's call straight through to the plant's control room. Through the telephone line, Pintek could hear a lot of commotion. After introducing himself, a person in the control room informed Pintek, "I can't talk now. We got a problem. Call Reading and talk to them." 

Suddenly, small town reporter Mike Pintek was thrust into the middle of a very big story -- a story with national and international significance. He just didn't know it yet. After hanging up with the Three Mile Island control room, Pintek placed a call to Metropolitan Edison Company, the parent company for Three Mile Island, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and asked to speak with Blaine Fabian, the director of communications. Fabian was already aware of the situation at Three Mile Island and was busy working on a statement that would prevent a panic. Working with Jack Herbein, a Met Ed vice president, Fabian had crafted a two-sentence statement: "The nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island Unit Two has shut down as prescribed when a malfunction related to a feed-water pump occurred about 4 am, Wednesday. The entire unit was systematically shut down and will be out of service for about a week while equipment is checked and repairs made." Fabian went on to tell Pintek that a "general emergency," which Fabian described as a "red-tape type of thing required by the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission)," was taking place at the plant. Fabian assured Pintek that there was "no danger to the general public." 

At 8:25 am, Mike Pintek delivered to his listeners throughout Dauphin County news that would greatly impact their lives for the next several days. Following a top-40 pop song, Pintek announced, "There is a general emergency at Metropolitan Edison Company's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. A utility spokesman says there is a problem with a feed-water pump..." Pintek included in his report Met Ed's assurance that the public was in no danger. 

For the next five days, Pintek struggled in his dual role of objective journalist and concerned citizen. At times, his conflicted impulses got the best of him. "I remember feeling very angry," he later said. "I guess at that moment I was not a journalist any more. I lived here and I was mad." Pintek inadvertently ignited a panic in the area when he broadcast the conclusions of Dr. Ernest Sternglass, a professor of radiology at the University of Pittsburgh. Sternglass had expressed concern that any radiation released from Three Mile Island would pose a threat to unborn babies and infants. "I'm particularly concerned with the possibility of an increased risk of leukemia and cancer among the very young," Sternglass said. He continued, "...pregnant women should very seriously consider leaving." Pintek was torn about using the story, but finally decided to do so. He later told writer Mark Stephens, "At that point, after hearing so many contradictory statements, I felt Dr. Sternglass was just as much a legitimate authority as anybody else was. ...So I said use him. Let's do it." Immediately following the broadcast, WKBO was flooded with calls from frightened residents wondering if they should leave. Like the rest of his fellow residents of Dauphin County, Mike Pintek had no answers. He only had more questions. 

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