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Governor Averted Public Panic Over Three Mile Island

As US attorney general, Dick Thornburgh helped win approval of the ADA
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 31, 2020 5:05 PM CST

(Newser) – Dick Thornburgh, who as Pennsylvania governor won plaudits for his cool handling of the 1979 Three Mile Island crisis and as US attorney general restored credibility to a Justice Department hurt by the Iran-Contra scandal, has died. He was 88. Thornburgh died Thursday at a retirement community outside Pittsburgh, his son David said. The cause is not yet known. He suffered a mild stroke in June 2014, the AP reports. Thornburgh built his reputation as a crime-busting prosecutor in Pittsburgh and as a moderate Republican governor. As the nation's top law enforcement official, he prosecuted the savings and loan scandal. He also shepherded the Americans with Disabilities Act, forging compromises with Congress; one of his sons had been severely brain damaged in an auto accident. After leaving public office, Thornburgh became a troubleshooter who helped CBS investigate its news practices, dissected illegalities at telecommunications company WorldCom, and tried to improve the United Nations' efficiency.

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President Ronald Reagan appointed Thornburgh attorney general in the waning months of his administration. Thornburgh succeeded Edwin Meese III, who was investigated for possible ethics violations, and his appointment in 1988 was hailed on Capitol Hill as an opportunity to restore the department's morale and image. He stayed on when George HW Bush became president. Thornburgh ran into trouble with the press and members of Congress put off by his imperious manner. Still, he won unprecedented increases from Congress in the Justice Department's budget to fight crime. As Pennsylvania governor, Thornburgh faced the worst nuclear accident in US history when an equipment failure at the Three Mile Island power plant turned into a partial meltdown, which released radioactive elements. Thornburgh agonized over whether to order an evacuation of the area around the plant. He eventually ordered pregnant women and young children to leave an area five miles around the plant, which caused thousands of others near Harrisburg to flee. His cool handling of the 10-day crisis was credited with averting panic.

(Read more obituary stories.)

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