The Death of Karen Silkwood
1. The Accident
It was dark. Nobody saw the accident. The small white car was found on its side by the bridge. A river ran underneath the road there, and the car was lying next to the bridge wall, below the road. Inside the car was a dead woman. Her name was Karen Silkwood and she was twenty-eight years old. It was November 13th, 1974.
The police thought that there was an easy answer to these questions. Karen was tired after a long day, so she fell asleep while she was driving. It could happen to anyone very easily. They took the car to a garage and they took Karen's body to a hospital.
2. The New Job
The story of Karen and her brown envelope began in 1972 when she took a new job at a nuclear factory in Oklahoma. Before that, she worked as a secretary, but in 1972 she was really tired of a secretary's life. She looked in the newspaper and saw that there was a job at the nuclear factory. The pay was much better than a secretary's pay, and the work was more interesting. She went to see Mr. Bailey, the manager of the factory, and she was surprised and happy when he gave her the job immediately. He asked Karen to start work the next day.
On her first day at the factory Karen learned a lot, Mr. Bailey told her that she had to wear a special white coat, some special shoes and a white hat.
'These clothes protect you from radioactive dust,' he said. 'There isn't really any danger, of course. Everything is safe here. We cheek everything all the time.''I see,' said Karen.
'You need an identity card to get into the factory every morning. Just give me a photograph of you and I'll give you a card; a pretty picture of a pretty girl.’
He smiled. Karen didn't like that smile.
'He thinks I'm stupid' she thought. 'Why do men always think that pretty girls are stupid?'He was still speaking.
'Now I'll call Mrs. Phillips. She'll take you round the factory and show you your laboratory. The manager there will explain the job to you. Don't worry; it's very easy.'He smiled his thin smile again.
The door opened and Mrs. Phillips came in. She was about forty years old and a little fat. She looked afraid.'You wanted me, Mr. Bailey?'
"Yes, Susan. This is Karen Silkwood. She's going to work with you in your laboratory. Could you take her round the factory and tell her about the work?'
'Oh, I see. Of course, Mr. Bailey. Please follow me, Miss Silkwood.'
When the office door closed, Mrs. Phillips smiled at Karen, and said,
'That was lucky! Usually if he calls me, he wants to shout at me about something. Please call me Susan. Can I call you Karen?''Of course,' said Karen.
They walked down a long corridor with heavy doors on both sides. Susan opened one of the doors. 'This is our laboratory.'Karen saw six or seven people in the room. They were all wearing white gloves and their hands were inside a big glass box. There were holes in the side of the box - just big enough for hands. Everyone looked at Karen.
'What's in the box?' Karen asked Susan.
'Not chocolate,' said one worker.
'Or beer,' said another,
'Don't listen to them,' said Susan. 'It's fuel rods (barras de combustible) and uranium. We put uranium into the fuel rods. That's why you must always wear your gloves. And when you leave the laboratory, always remember to take off your gloves and check your hands in front of the scanner.'
She showed Karen the scanner, which was near the door.
'It there's any radioactive dust on your hands, the scanner knows at once. An alarm rings all over the factory.'
'And when the alarm rings, the party begins,' said one man.'Party?' Karen asked.
'You can take off all your clothes and have a swim . . . with lots of water.'
'He means they wash you in a shower,' said Susan. 'It doesn't happen very often.'Karen went home happy at the end of the day. She didn't think that the work was difficult. And the money was good . . . very good.
3. Karen and Drew
At first Karen liked her new job. She was an ordinary, small-town girl who liked ordinary things: a comfortable home, a glass of beer, an evening with good friends. Soon she had some new friends from the factory.
She also liked Drew. He worked in another part of the factory, but everyone used the same coffee bar. She met him a few days after she started the job. In the coffee bar she and Susan were laughing together at a story in the newspaper. Then Karen suddenly heard a voice behind her. 'Here's a new face'
She turned round quickly. A tall man was standing just behind her chair with a coffee in his hand.
'Be careful with that coffee, will you?' said Karen. 'You're going to drop some on me in a moment.
'It's too good to be true. Nobody as beautiful as you ever works in this factory. What about having a pizza with me tonight after work?'
Karen wasn't sure what to say. He looked nice, but she didn't know anything about him.Susan understood what Karen was thinking. 'Don't worry, dear. It's only Drew. He's big and he doesn't talk much, but he's not dangerous.' Drew laughed.
'Thanks, Susan. I'll buy you a coffee every day this week for that."
He turned to Karen.
'Can I buy you a pizza or not? What do you say?'
'I never miss a free meal.'
When Karen arrived at the restaurant that evening, Drew was already there. He stood up when she came in and gave her a big friendly smile. Karen thought of Mr. Bailey's smile. How could two smiles be so different?Karen found that it was very easy to talk to Drew, He listened to what she said and they laughed at the same things. It was like talking to her favorite brother. In the next few weeks they spent a lot of time together. Everyone at the factory saw how happy they were. Life was going well for Karen.
3. The Shower
But in the summer of 1974 everything began to change.
One evening Karen and Susan were leaving the laboratory. First Karen cheeked her hands in front of the scanner, and then a minute later Susan checked her hands. Suddenly there was a terrible noise. It was like a high scream. Everybody could hear it all over the factory. Susan didn't move. She just looked at her hands. Then the door of the laboratory flew open. Two men in white coats ran in and took Susan by the arms. Before Karen could do anything, they pulled Susan through the door. The terrible noise of the alarm was still going. Karen shouted:'Where are you taking her?'
Nobody could hear. Nobody answered. Suddenly the noise stopped. Karen turned to the other workers.'Where will she be?'
'In the shower room.'
Karen ran out of the laboratory and along the corridor to the shower room.
Inside the room Susan was screaming. Karen pushed open the door.Susan had no clothes on, and the two men were showering her from head to foot - in her eyes, inside her
ears, everywhere. The water hit her body like stones. 'Stop that!' shouted Karen. 'You're hurting her.'
'Not as much as radioactive dust can hurt her. One very small piece could kill her,' shouted hack one of the men.
Ten minutes later they stopped the shower. Susan's face was as white as snow and she was shaking with cold. The men checked her body again with a hand scanner.
'OK. You're clean now. Put your clothes on. In five minutes we'll come back and take you to the medical center for more rests.'They left. Susan looked at Karen.
They say I'm clean. Outside perhaps. But what about inside? How much radioactive dust is in my body? Am I "hot"?'
Her voice was quiet and tired. Suddenly she looked old. Slowly, she began to put her clothes on.'"Hot"? What do you mean?' asked Karen.
'"Hot" means radioactive.'
Karen looked at her own hands. Were they clean? How carefully did the scanner check them? She worked next to Susan in the laboratory. Perhaps the dust was on her hands, too.
'I'm sure you're fine, Susan. The men said you were OK. And the doctors will know.''Nobody knows. Uranium is very new. Nobody really
knows what it can do to us.'
One of the men came back with a woman.
'Come along, dear. Time for your medical tests.'
Then they saw Karen near the door.
'What are you doing here? If you've finished work for today, you can go home.'Karen did not listen to them.
'Are you OK, Susan? Do you want me to come with you?'Susan shook her head.
'No, it's OK. You go home, Karen, I'll phone you later, Don't worry about me. And thank you.'The man and the woman took Susan's arms and walked down the corridor, with Susan between them. She looked very small and very afraid.
5. The New Union Official
After the shower Susan was a different person. She was quiet and didn't laugh very often. One evening, a few months after the shower, Karen met Susan in a bar for a drink after work.
'You know, Karen, we really must leave the factory. It's very dangerous. How many times do we hear the alarm now? More and more often. And every time we hear it, we know that someone is in danger.'
'How does it happen? I don't understand it,' said Karen.
'It's because the factory is working twenty-four hours a day. The safety people can't do their job well. They have to check everything carefully every day, but when can they do it? When we finish, there are the people who come in to work at night. The managers don't care about the danger. They only care about the money. And you know, Karen, I'm just the same. I also have to think only of money, I have three children and my husband is dead, I need the money from the factory. It's more than I can get from any other job in Oklahoma. Three children are expensive, very expensive . . .'
'Of course,' answered Karen. 'I understand. Drew and I have talked about this. He's thinking about leaving, too.'
It's OK for a young man, strong like Drew. He can get many other jobs. You could leave too, Karen. Why don't you?'
'Because I've decided to change things here. I like the job and I like the people who work here. The money is good. We just need to improve safety - that's all. Surely that's not difficult? We have to talk to the managers and tell them it's important. Do you know Bob in Laboratory 16? Well, don't laugh, but he's asked me to be on the Union Committee, and I'm going to try it,'
'But, Karen, you can't. You're a woman. There are no women on the Committee. The men won't vote for you,' said Susan.
'Perhaps not,' replied Karen. 'But what about you? Will you vote for me? Do you know how many women work for this factory? Hundreds. And why won't the men vote for me? Perhaps I'm the first woman who has asked for their vote.'Susan smiled. 'Well . . .'
But she couldn't find a good answer to Karen's question.A week later, when the workers had to vote for the new Committee, most of the women voted for Karen. And a lot of the men voted for her, too. They saw that she really wanted to change things at the factory, and everyone agreed with her that safety was very important. So Karen was now an official on the factory's Union Committee.
6 .The Meeting in Washington
A month or two later the alarm sounded again. This time Karen was in front of the scanner. She went quietly with the men in white coats. But after her shower she asked them a lot of questions about safety in the factory. They didn't answer any questions. They just got angry.
They knew she was on the Union Committee and they were afraid of her. All the managers knew that Karen was on the Committee because she always had a notebook in her hand. In her notebook she wrote down all the scanner alarms, every shower and every other danger in the factory. She asked a lot of people a lot of questions and always wrote the answers in her notebook. The notebook was getting full.
In September 1974 the Union Committee had a meeting. Everybody could see that safety at the factory was getting worse. The Committee decided to write to the Union leaders in Washington and ask for help. Two days later there was a phone call from Washington. The leaders wanted to see the Union Committee immediately in Washington.For Karen this journey to Washington was a big adventure. She wanted to see The White House and all the other famous places in the first city of the USA, but she had very little free time. She spent nearly all the time at a long meeting.
At first the leaders just listened to what Karen and the others said about the factory. Their faces got more and more unhappy. Karen explained what was happening.
'The managers take photographs of the fuel rods to check that they are safe. But I know that they are secretly changing the negatives of the photographs. And why are they doing that? Because the photographs show that the rods are not safe.'
Suddenly one of the leaders said to Karen, 'Do you understand what you're saying, Miss Silkwood? The lives of many people could be in danger if you're right. Uranium is very, very dangerous.'
'I'm just telling you what the people in the photographic laboratory have told me,' Karen said.
'If this is true, the government will close your factory. Do you understand what that means? A lot of people will lose their jobs. The story will be on the front page of every newspaper.'
Karen looked unhappy. 'Will it? We only want the managers to change a few things and to be more careful about safety.'I think it's already too late for that.'
After the meeting one of the leaders stopped Karen outside in the corridor.'Just come with me for a minute, please,' he said.
He took Karen into a small room and closed the door. He didn't want anybody to hear them.
'Karen, we need proof about these negatives. Without proof nobody will believe our story. Can you get some for us?''What proof do you need?'
'Someone will have to go into the photographic laboratory and steal some negatives. We need the negatives both before they change them and after they change them. Do you know where they keep the negatives?'
'Yes, I know,' said Karen quietly. 'But it will be very difficult. I don't work in the photographic laboratory. If one of the managers sees me there, how can I explain what I'm doing?'
'I don't know, but you'll have to think of something. We can't help you if you haven't any proof.'
They were both silent for a minute. Karen looked out of the window. It was a lovely evening. She thought of Mr. Bailey's cold smile and Susan's screams in the shower.'I'll do it,' she said.
'Good girl. It will be very dangerous. Nobody must know what you're doing. Not your friends on the Committee - nobody. I'll be the only person who knows.
I'll phone you once a week and you can tell me how you're getting on.'
'Nobody? Can't I tell my boyfriend Drew?' asked Karen.
'No. It could be dangerous for anybody who knows.'
'I see. OK. I'll do what I can,' said Karen slowly.
'Be very, very careful. You're a brave girl. I'd like to thank you for agreeing to do this.'
Karen stood up. Outside the window the sun was still shining, but she felt cold and lonely.
'Can I phone you if I need to speak to someone?'
'Of course. Any time, day or night. This is my card with my name and plume number.'Karen took his card. She saw that his name was Pete. She looked at him once more and then she left the room.
7. The Brown Envelope
When she arrived back from Washington, Drew was waiting at the airport.'Did you have a good time?'
'Not really. Things are worse at the factory than we thought. The Union leaders are going to send some doctors to the factory to talk to everyone about the dangers of uranium.'
'Poor Karen, You look very tired. Let's go home, have a beer and listen to some music. Forget the factory for one evening.'
Karen looked at Drew's kind, strong face. She wanted so much to tell him . . . but no, she mustn't tell anybody. She tried to smile.
'OK. What about a pizza at our favorite restaurant?' she said.
Soon some doctors came from Washington and spoke to the workers. After that everyone tried to help Karen. They were really afraid when they heard about the dangers of uranium. Soon Karen had to begin a new notebook. Everywhere she went in the factory, the notebook went with her.The managers watched Karen and they watched her notebook. One day she left it on a table in the coffee bar lor two minutes while she went to get some sugar. A manager tried to take it, but the other workers stopped him.
'What are you doing? That's Karen's book.'
The manager's face turned red and he put the book down. But the managers were now watching her all the time. It was more and more difficult to get into the photographic laboratory. But in the last week of October Karen told the Union leader in Washington that she had nearly all the proof necessary.
'That's wonderful,' said Pete's soft voice in Washington. 'When you're ready, I'll take you to meet an important man from the New York Times. We'll give the story to the newspapers, and they'll tell the world about it. Then the government and the factory managers will have to do something about the dangers of your work.''Give me just a little more time,' said Karen. And she put down the telephone.
8. A 'Hot' Home
At the beginning of November Karen was ready for the meeting with the New York Times journalist. The brown envelope was full.
But the men in white arrived and began to pull Karen out of the room.
'No, please . . . not again. All my body hurts from the shower last night . . .'But nobody listened. They showered her again. But after the shower she didn't pass the usual scanner test.
There was still something radioactive in her body.
'What does it mean?' asked Karen.
Nobody answered. A doctor arrived and checked the test again. He shook his head.
'Where were you last night?' he asked.
'Here,' said Karen. 'I was working late.'
'Where did you go after work?'
'Home, of course. I was tired so I went to bed.'
'Are you sure?'
'Sure? Of course I'm sure.'
'Did you see anyone?'
'Only the other girl in my house, Paula. I just said good night to her. She was already in bed.'
'OK . . . Let's go,' said one of the men in white.
'What's your address?'
'26 Third Avenue West . . . Why?'
'Get in the car. Don't ask stupid questions. We don't answer questions from thieves.'
'Thieves? What have I stolen?'
'Get into the car.'
Someone pushed Karen into a big white car. It was full of more men in white. They were all wearing the special white clothes and hats to protect their faces and bodies, and they were all holding scanners. They drove to Karen's home and opened the door with Karen's key.
'Stay in the car,' one of the men in white shouted at Karen.
But Karen didn't listen to him. She followed them to the house and looked through the windows. The men went all round the house with the scanners and everywhere was radioactive - the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom. The kitchen was very 'hot', and when the men opened the fridge, the noise from the scanners was very loud. The men followed the noise to the sandwich.
'I suppose she made this last night,' said one of the men. 'Stupid girl. She's lucky that nobody has eaten it.'They put the sandwich carefully into a bag. That was only the beginning. Soon all Karen's things were in bags - her clothes, her books, her photos. When they took her
photo of Drew, Karen couldn't stay quiet any longer.
'What are yon doing? It's just a photo!'
'Be quiet!' they told her. 'Don't you understand anything? Your house is very radioactive. The walls are "hot" too. We can't leave anything in the house; it's not safe. Think of the people next door. Now we're going to lock the house and nobody must go in again. Phone your friend Paula and tell her to find somewhere to sleep tonight. Don't tell her too much. Nobody must know what's happened here. People won't understand and they'll begin to worry and get afraid. That's not good for the factory.'
'The factory . . . ? Who cares about the factory? What about me? If my house is radioactive, I'm radioactive too,' said Karen.
'Why didn't you think of that before you stole the uranium? Go to your boyfriend's house. Don't go out. Don't speak to anyone. We'll phone you tomorrow and tell you what to do.'They put all the bags in the car and drove away. Karen stood alone in the middle of the street. They thought she was a thief. But why? Who could want to take uranium out of the factory? Everyone knew how stupid and dangerous that was. She looked silently at her empty house. Now there was nothing in her home - only a brown envelope in a hole in the wall.
9. Where to go?
Karen tried to think. She was 'hot'. Perhaps she was dying. She was dangerous to other people, dangerous to Drew. She couldn't phone him. She was alone. She forgot about Pete in Washington. She sat down on the ground and cried. She wanted to die quickly.
Three hours later Drew found her there. She was still sitting on the ground. Her face was white and empty. She didn't look up when he walked across to her.
'Karen, my Karen, come with me at once. Someone from the factory phoned me. I know everything. Karen . . . look at me.'
''Don't come near me. I'm dangerous to you.'
'Don't be stupid. I talked to the doctor at the factory. He says you're not dangerous to anyone. You've had a shower, so your body's not radioactive now.'
Karen looked up into his face. 'And you believe him? Do you still believe anybody in that place? Do you also believe I stole uranium from the factory?'
'Of course not. Did they say that to you? That's terrible! Wait until tomorrow. When I get in there, they'll be sorry they ever said that to you.'
'It's no good, Drew, I'm dying,' said Karen quietly. 'I don't know how this happened, bur I know one thing. There are people at that factory who want to see me dead.'
'Karen . . . you're tired. You need a holiday. You must leave the factory like me. Come home with me now.'
'Home? I haven't got a home anymore.' Karen put her head in her hands.
Drew looked at the empty house. His face was white and angry.
'Did they do that, too? Karen . . . my home is your home from now on.'He took both Karen's hands and pulled her to her feet. He helped her to his car, and took her home.
10. Karen explains to Drew
That night Karen and Drew couldn't sleep. They had to talk.
'How did your house get so radioactive? That's the question,' said Drew.
'I think,' answered Karen, 'that someone put something radioactive into my bag last night before I left the factory. I remember that I left my bag on the table for a few minutes at coffee time in the afternoon.''But, Karen, who did that? And why?'
'Drew, I'm going to tell you something. Perhaps I'm dying now, so there mustn't be any secrets between us any more. I agreed to get photos of the fuel rods for the Union in Washington. I've stolen photos and negatives from the photographic laboratory. Perhaps someone saw me . . . one of the managers.''You've stolen photos? What photos? Why?'
Karen explained everything to Drew. He was very quiet when she finished. In the end, he took her hand.'Karen, this is very dangerous. I'm afraid for you. Perhaps someone does want to kill you. Didn't you think of that danger when the Union asked you to do this? Why did you agree to do it?'
'Because I care, Drew. Somebody has to do something. Why not me? I care about you, about Susan, about everyone who has ever worked at that factory. If the danger from radioactive dust doesn't stop, perhaps we'll all die. Don't you understand that?'
'Yes, I understand,' said Drew quietly. 'But I also understand that you're doing a difficult and dangerous job alone. You mustn't work alone any more. I'll be with you all the time. Nobody is going to hurt you again.'Karen smiled.
'I was right to tell you. I need a friend, and you are the best friend that 1 have. But it's not much longer now. After the meeting with the New York Times, everything will be finished. I can go on for a few more days. But I'll tell you everything from now on.'
Next morning Karen telephoned Pete in Washington and the Union Committee at the factory. She told them about her house and that the managers were calling her a thief.
From Washington Pete's voice sounded angry and worried.
'The factory's managers are trying to sack you. Say nothing, do nothing. We'll speak to them and tell them that we know what's happened to you. You must have medical tests, and we'll tell them that.'Karen waited at Drew's house all day. In the evening the phone rang.
'Miss Silkwood?' said Mr. Bailey's cold voice. 'You and Drew and your friend Paula must go to Los Alamos for tests. The doctors there know all about uranium and radioactive dust. We've talked to the Union. We will pay for the journey and they will pay for the tests. But we know that you've stolen some uranium - that's why you were so radioactive. There's no other answer.'The phone line went dead.
Karen looked at Drew.
'You and I are going to Los Alamos for medical tests. But I'm sure now . . . the managers know. They know what I've really stolen. And they'll look for them while we're away. They'll tell everyone that they're looking for the stolen uranium. But they won't find anything. They won't find their negatives.'
11. The Night Drive
Karen, Paula, and Drew went to Los Alamos and had the tests, The doctors said that Karen's body was still a little radioactive, but Drew and Paula were all right. It was very good news. They told Karen that she was in no danger now. But they also explained that they didn't know about the future. 'It will be a few years,' they said, 'before we know that you're really all right.'
High in the mountains around Los Alamos, Paula, Drew and Karen had a party in a little restaurant. Karen felt years younger. She was not going to die. She and Drew still had a future together. They all danced until midnight.
The next day they look the plane back to Oklahoma City. Karen had to go back because that evening there was a union meeting at the factory and alter that, her meeting with Pete and the journalist from the New York Times. It was an important day for her. They arrived at the airport in the morning. Early in the evening Karen drove to her house. She went alone because Drew was working. She used her key and went quietly into the house. She was only inside the house for three minutes and then she left immediately and went to the union meeting at the factory.
That night at the meeting, Karen had a big brown envelope in her bag. The envelope was too big for the bag, so everyone could see it. All the workers were very happy to hear that Karen was all right. They were afraid that she was very ill, so when they saw her looking happy and well, everyone felt better.
'She looks as happy as she did a year ago,' thought Susan. 'A pretty, happy girl, who likes a good time and a good laugh.'
After the meeting a lot of people wanted to talk to Karen and ask her about the last few days.'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I can't talk to you now.
I have to go to another meeting.'
"With your good-looking Drew?' asked someone with a friendly laugh.
'Yes,' said Karen. 'With Drew. And one or two other people.' She smiled.
'Can I take you in my car?' asked her friend Bob.
'No, thanks,' said Karen. 'I've got my car here.'
It was dark when Karen left the factory. She smiled at all her friends, got into her small white car and drove away.
Karen never arrived at her meeting with Drew, Pete and the journalist from the New York Times. On the road to the meeting, a few miles from the nuclear factory, she had an accident by a wall near a river. It was November 13th, 1974. Nobody ever found the brown envelope.