The four cooling towers looming above the treetops south of this Pennsylvania town are a constant reminder to residents of the crippled giant in their midst.

Until 10 years ago, vapor billowed from all of the 350-foot-tall, concrete towers at the Three Mile Island power station. Now, plumes rise from just two, the only exterior sign of March 28, 1979 - the day of the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident."I never gave one thought about an accident because we were always told that they had backups to backups and that there could never be an accident," recalled Mayor Robert Reid, who was in his second term at the time.

"But when the accident took place, the people didn't know how to deal with it. And the people started to use their imaginations, and their imaginations ran away with them," Reid said. "The first thing that most people probably thought was nuclear . . . nuclear bomb . . . the plant will blow up just like an atomic bomb."

An atomic explosion wasn't the danger. A combination of errors drained protective cooling water from the plant's Unit 2 reactor, causing half of the radioactive core to melt and releasing some radioactive gases into the atmosphere. For a time, the core threatened to melt through the reactor and spew large amounts of radioactive material into the air.

General Public Utilities Corp., the New Jersey utility that owns the plant, assured residents the released radioactivity posed no serious health threat. Post-accident studies said the most radiation any individual within 50 miles of the plant could have received was about 70 millirem, less than what a person receives over a year from natural background radiation.

But some Middletown residents, who had watched as repeated reassurances from the utility's executives were proved wrong, remain unbelieving. Some have moved away and others say they would leave if they could afford it.

Some people feel their lives have been as irreparably damaged by the accident as was the reactor. Others say they have put the accident behind them.

Dr. James F. Rooney, associate professor of sociology at Penn State University, has surveyed residents to chart changes in feelings about the accident.

In a 1983 study, they indicated nuclear power and control were their third most important concern behind unemployment and war. Two years later, residents had dropped nuclear power to 12th on their list of concerns.

When residents were asked in 1985 to rate the anxiety, anger, depression and physical problems they had experienced since the accident, the results showed their symptoms were two-thirds more prevalent than those of the general population.

Fran Cain, whose home is on the east side of the Susquehanna River near Three Mile Island, says the accident changed her outlook on life.

"I hate it here," she said. "If I hit the lottery I'd walk out tomorrow and leave everything behind."

Her anxiety about possible health effects has not eased, Cain said. "We went through an awful lot, and anybody can say don't worry, but I'm very nervous and I worry."

"You can never escape it," she said, gesturing to the cooling towers visible from her home. "You look out the side of my house and it's there. You look out the back and it's there. I try not to think of it because I get very upset. But I can never forget it completely because it stares me in the face every day."

Fear is not part of the picture for John Garnish.

He speaks bitterly about the financial losses he has sustained because he cannot sell his property here and had to sell a home in Florida because he could not afford two houses.

"I'm tired of standing around and talking about this," he said. "People around here are so sick of hearing about it. I want somebody to do something about this. Who's going to take this property off my hands?"

It has been easier for others.

Greg Kupp has the same job he was working the day of the catastrophe: slinging hamburgers, home fries and omelettes and dishing up home-made stews, pies and hot coffee at his family's diner.

He worked with his father and grandfather at Kuppy's Diner through the emergency. It never occurred to them to evacuate, he said. His diner became a hangout for reporters who descended on the town.

"I think the news people blew things out of proportion," said Kupp. "What were they doing here if it was supposed to be so bad?"

He has little to say about Three Mile Island these days, mainly because he is tired of hearing about it, but also because many of his customers work at the plant.

"You can't stand here and talk negative of anything, you'll cut your own throat," he said. "But 95 percent of the people around here have forgotten it. It's not like you wake up every day and think about it."