It was the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history—a sudden, noiseless series of critical failures deep inside Reactor No. II at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pa., near Harrisburg. What followed lay just this side of chaos: conflicting and dangerously cosmetic reports of the danger; a mass exodus from the area; epidemic fear of the plant's invisible emissions. On these pages, a team of PEOPLE correspondents—Dianna Waggoner in San Francisco, Dolly Langdon in Washington, Richard K. Rein and Andrea Pawlyna at Three Mile Island—report on the grave burden of doubt left by the accident at Middletown: on families struggling with the decision to flee, on the industry's regulators, on a worker contaminated in the line of duty—and on an anguished pioneer of nuclear power who now sees his early work as a killing threat.

A mother leaves home for the baby's sake

When authorities decided to evacuate preschool children within five miles of Three Mile Island, Sylvia Tomasko left work early, did a load of wash and then took her 16-month-old son Bryan (above) and daughter Margie, 12, to the makeshift barracks in the sports arena at Hershey. Her other two children, 10 and 14, remained in town with her parents, as she would have preferred to do. She stood to make $100 on her weekend waitressing job—"and when you're on your own with four kids," she said, "that money means a lot."

It was the insidious character of the danger that most unsettled Mrs. Tomasko. "You can't see it or taste it," she said, "but it's there. The effects won't show up today or tomorrow, but maybe 15 years from now people will be unable to have children or will get more cancer." She planned to join her brother in Syracuse, N.Y. "I think it will be pretty safe there."

Mrs. Tomasko is determined, however, to return home—"the people here are spunky," she boasts. Remembering how everyone took for granted that the plant would operate normally, she now says, "I think nuclear power is useful if it's harnessed in the right place at the right time. But the right place is not Middletown."

Ron Miller fights his family to stick it out

One by one, fleeing for places like New Jersey and Maryland, Ron Miller's neighbors were leaving. Population in the hamlet of Goldsboro, just across the river from the plant, was down from 600 before the accident to 100 and still dropping, but Ron would not be moved. "There's no way I'm going to leave," said Miller, who works with his wife, Mary, at a nearby electronics firm.

Mary argued that they should take their two teenagers and go, but to no avail, and she buried her anxiety in a flurry of housework. "At least people can't say I'm a dirty housekeeper." When the task was over, she observed wistfully, "Now I have nothing to do except worry."

The Millers, both 36, would head for their hunting cabin near Chambersburg if evacuation of the town was ordered, but Ron didn't want to risk his house to looters before then. The prospect of falling property values hasn't bothered him—"Things will probably go cheap and I'll buy another place." Rather, it seemed a matter of territory and pride. Slapping the siding on the house, Ron declared, "Nobody's going to take it from me." His wife added with unintended irony: "We plan on living here the rest of our lives." Still, Miller kept an eye on the plant, visible from his porch. Every time he thought he saw a puff of steam he called out, "There it goes again," and watched to see if the wind carried anything toward the house.

The Benos flee in fear: 'I don't want to die'

"I don't want to be here when that thing goes," Jeff Beno, 17, was saying as he helped his widowed mother, Romaine, pack. They were headed for a relative's home in New Jersey. "I'm young yet," Jeff explained. "I've got a life ahead of me. I've got to have kids yet. I don't want to die."

Mrs. Beno, a telephone assembler for ITT, had been to see The China Syndrome before the accident at the plant and had come away unmoved. "I didn't think anything of it," she said. "I never thought it would happen here." Now that it had, she felt the film's portrayal of dissembling industry spokesmen was all too true to life. "We watched TV and when someone didn't want to answer a question, they'd kind of stutter. If they just told the truth, I could have handled the whole thing better." The visit to the plant by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter failed to quiet her fears or to convince her to stay. "It was all show," she said. "What can he do?" She is also worried about property values: She had put a five-unit apartment house up for sale before the accident.

While another son planned to stay put, Jeff and his mother were hurrying to beat what he was sure would be panic on the highway if the evacuation order ever came. He wondered if Middletown could survive. "It's a good little town," he said, "but if things get any worse, it's just going to die away." Diverted for a moment by the sight of buds on a tree outside, Jeff thought of the radiation again. "It's sort of ironic, isn't it? Everything is just coming alive."

Ready but unwilling, the Bitners stay put

Robert Bitner was playing golf two days after the accident when he was told to leave the course. After that he and his wife, Carlyn, never left the house without a portable radio. School was called off, and daughter Beth, 13, reported that "some of the teachers were panicking a little—and the kids were saying things like, 'We're all going to die.' " Her sister Jenny, 11, said, "The teachers were making us draw to keep busy. Some of the kids were scared." The family professed confidence in the officials. "I think they're telling me the truth," Mrs. Bitner said. "If they disappoint me, I'll be in shock. I don't want to go until I have to. There's no place like home." But by the door was bedding and a packed bag, just in case.

The nuclear commissioners: 'We're the decision makers'

Five men who sit on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington control the nation's nuclear power, and they are tethered to that responsibility by hot lines in their homes. Appointed by the White House to terms of five years, they are a mixed lot whose conflicting views and ideologies are reflected in heated debates and frequent 3-2 votes. Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie, 54, a Columbia Ph.D. in physics who has been involved in nuclear reactor safety for 20 years, and Richard T. Kennedy, 59, a retired Army colonel and former aide to Henry Kissinger, are "classical nuclear advocates who usually vote together in commission meetings," according to an NRC official. Their colleagues Victor Gilinsky, 44, Warsaw-born Caltech Ph.D. in physics and product of the Rand "think tank," and lawyer Peter A. Bradford, 36, the youngest commissioner and one of the original Nader's Raiders, are the NRC's skeptical watchdogs. The commission's swing man is its newest member, John F. Ahearne, 44, a Princeton Ph.D. in physics and a former professor. However divergent their views may be, the five commissioners are obliged in nuclear crises to take decisive, unambiguous action. "In the case of an accident, the licensee usually shuts down the plant," says Kennedy. "But sometimes, as with the five plants we recently shut down in the East because of susceptibility to earthquake, we issue an order." That decision, for one, was unanimous. "We're the ultimate decision makers," as Kennedy puts it. "The buck stops here."

A brave worker takes a dose of rems, but scoffs at the danger

One of the area residents who came in closest contact with the danger at Three Mile Island is least convinced of it. Ron Fountain, 41, is an auxiliary operator at Reactor No. II, and in the frantic hours just after the accident that Wednesday morning, Fountain faced the most hazardous task possible: opening a valve in a field of high radiation to help cool down the reactor's core.

He knew something was wrong at the plant when he arrived that morning. "I'm used to a heavy security force on the island," he says. "Usually there are 500 people there—union guys, management, office girls. But on Wednesday it was kind of scary—no one was around." Ominously, the control room operator and a dozen other men were in emergency garb—yellow rubber wet suits and respirators—and Fountain quickly found out why. The valves were in a 100-rem area, off limits except in life-threatening situations. The men were taking turns going into the hot zone, and Fountain suited up.

His account of that morning is a study of performance under pressure: "I had to get up to the second level to open my valve, but the elevator was broken. I should have walked, but I started running. I started hyperventilating. My instinct was to rip off my mask, but I knew the air was heavy with particulates. I said a prayer. I had to gather my wits. I saw I was sweating and breathing heavy. I made myself walk to the valve. I opened it. Then I walked toward the door. My air pack's two-minute warning bell was tingling. I burst through the door, kicking it open. I ripped the mask off and put on another. Usually we've got personnel to help us—but not that day." By then Fountain's dosimeter showed he had absorbed 1,000 millirems of radiation—the equivalent of 25 to 50 X-rays, more than three times his allowable intake for the week.

Fountain told his story to the Philadelphia Inquirer afterward but now is sorry he did. "I was trying to relieve some of the public's fears," he says, but feels his interview only exacerbated them. "Ron just wants people to know that the situation at the plant is not as bleak as everyone says," explains his wife, Jeanette, the mother of their four children. "So many of my friends called me in a panic to find out what's going on. I'm lucky," she adds, "to have my husband working out there."

A nuclear pioneer warns of genetic disaster

With his white beard and muscular physique, Dr. John W. Gofman, 60, looks like an Old Testament prophet. To the nuclear energy industry and its defenders, his warning is a grim one indeed. "Nuclear power plants should never have been built," he declares, "and they should all be shut down now. But I don't know if the American people will come to their senses in time." Normally soft-spoken, Gofman describes the licensing of nuclear plants as "a permit to commit a certain amount of murder" and brands spokesmen for the industry "Neanderthals who should be locked up."

Though the industry disputes Gofman's conclusions, it does not challenge his scientific credentials. The son of Russian immigrants, he was a graduate student at the University of California when his Ph.D. project led to the discovery of uranium 233, one of three elements used to fuel nuclear reactors. "When World War II came along, my research became the Manhattan Project," he says. "I had no reservations about working on the atom bomb, and I still don't, because I considered the war against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan important."

After the war Gofman married Helen Fahl, now 61 and a pediatrician at the University of San Francisco; their son, John, 31, is an ophthalmologist in Seattle. Remaining at Cal, Gofman earned his M.D. and subsequently became a well-known heart disease researcher. "For 16 years I didn't even think of the nuclear problem," he says with a sigh. "If I'd had my head about me, I could have helped steer off the whole nuclear development. My biggest feeling now is one of stupidity and regret. I was asleep."

Then, in 1963, at the request of the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), Gofman and a colleague undertook a study of the effect of radiation on all forms of life. "We discovered it was 20 times worse than anyone had estimated," he says. "To talk about a safe, allowable or permissive dose of radiation was a lie and a fraud." His published findings were disregarded, however, and the laboratory he worked for was suddenly deprived of its AEC funding. Gofman has little respect for the current generation of nuclear bureaucrats. "The NRC is a revolving door," he complains. "You go from the industry into the commission and you come out to a very nice utility vice-presidency. Regulators aren't going to bite the hand that's about to feed them."

Three Mile Island, he is certain, is only the beginning. "If leaks from reactors are great enough," he warns, "they will result in the genetic degradation of people living today, plus the spread of enough poison to last a thousand generations. There is no depravity of a higher order." What will be the cost of his own research? "Precautions were pretty poor back in 1942, and I got quite a radiation dose. A number of my co-workers and friends are already buried from leukemia or other cancers. I feel that I'm living on borrowed time."