Author explores town and its mine fire

Author explores town and its mine fire

Nearly a half-century after it began, the voracious mine fire that doomed this coal town in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania continues to burn hundreds of feet underground, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

The fire began in 1962 at the town dump and ignited an exposed coal vein, eventually forcing an exodus that emptied Centralia of more than 1,000 people, nearly its entire population.

Almost every house was demolished; the U.S. Postal Service canceled the town’s ZIP code.

Centralia still beckons curiosity seekers. What they find is a ghost town like no other, a place with an intact street grid but almost nothing on it, where clouds of sulfurous steam waft from a rocky moonscape and the ground is warm to the touch.

About 10 holdouts still live here, ignoring government admonitions to leave.

In a way, they are carrying on a tradition of proud defiance that is highlighted in a new book by the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Centralia coal miners.

In “The Day the Earth Caved In,” first-time author Joan Quigley vividly explores why so many of Centralia’s residents fought to stay in a town that was struggling economically even before the fire started, a place with “no stoplight or movie theater, no restaurant or grocery store.”

Most Centralians ignored the fire for years and some denied its very existence, choosing to disregard the threat posed by dangerous gases and cave-ins.

Why? For some, it was a simple matter of economics. Centralians worked low-paying jobs but for the most part owned their homes; they couldn’t afford to move and take on a mortgage.

For others, it was a matter of pride. They had lived in Centralia all their lives, just like their grandfathers and great-grandfathers before them, and couldn’t imagine abandoning it.

Centralians had “scraped for work after the mines closed,” Quigley writes, and “swelled with pride in their homes, their children and their community.”

Quigley, 42, grew up in Cleveland but was regaled with tales of her Centralia ancestors. Her first visit to the tiny town 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia was at age 15, when she attended her grandmother’s funeral.

She began researching the book in 1999, interviewing nearly 200 current and former Centralians, government officials, journalists and others.

“It has been 25 years” since people started to leave, “and I think that has given many former residents time to get perspective, to start lives in other communities and move on,” Quigley said in a recent phone interview.

Her book reveals indifference and incompetence at all levels of government, from the borough council on up through the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The fire could have been put out for thousands of dollars when it first started, Quigley writes, but bureaucratic inertia and bungling conspired to delay an effective response until it was too late.

“The government’s responses were a day late and a dollar short,” said Quigley, a former lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission. “There was never enough money for this fire to put it out.”

For Centralia, Quigley writes, the beginning of the end came on Valentine’s Day, 1981, when 12-year-old Todd Domboski was swallowed by a subsidence in his grandmother’s backyard, coating him with hot, sticky muck but otherwise leaving him unhurt.

The incident attracted national media attention to the mine fire and led to the formation of a group of Centralia activists — including an ex-hippie, a motorcycle shop owner and a young, pregnant housewife, all of whom feature prominently in Quigley’s story — who pressed the government to act.

But a sizable portion of Centralia’s population resented the activists. They were led by Helen Womer, a bank teller who wanted to keep Centralia intact at all costs and who rejected both a proposed government buyout and a proposed trench that would have obliterated her home.

Disagreements over the future of Centralia polarized the town so severely that in 1982 someone heaved a Molotov cocktail through the window of activist Dave Lamb’s motorcycle shop.

“There were people in part of the town who were safe, didn’t have to worry about gases, didn’t have to worry about the mine fire, and in all likelihood never would have had to worry about it,” Quigley said. “So for people who really wanted to stay — and that was a sizable group — if anyone came along and started talking about the fire and proposing ideas for how to deal with it, that was a threat.”

Eventually, though, even the die-hards realized they were fighting a lost cause.

The borough was “coalescing around … the need to flee, to escape homes the owners could not afford to relinquish and the prison, for some, of coexisting with toxic gases,” Quigley writes.

Still, a small group of holdouts vowed to stay. Womer was one of them, remaining in her house until the day she died in 2001. Her husband still lives there.

There has been a surge in interest in Centralia recently.

Along with Quigley’s book, a new feature-length documentary, “The Town That Was,” follows the exploits of 30-something John Lokitis, Centralia’s youngest resident, as he tries to keep the town alive. It has been screened at various film festivals and will compete at the Los Angeles Film Festival later this month.

Though Centralia’s numbers have dwindled steadily, its residents jealously guard the town’s image and reject the “ghost town” label, however apt.

“I think this town is more beautiful than ever,” said Helen Tanis, 80, who was born and raised in Centralia and lives in a stone-and-siding ranch house on Centre Street. Quigley’s great-aunt was Tanis’ first-grade teacher. “There’s a lot of room, and we’re safe. Centralia used to be tops, and it still is.”

Indeed, for a ghost town, Centralia is improbably well-maintained.

American flags are planted in large boulders of coal in residents’ yards. The houses are neatly kept. A spit-shined community ambulance and fire engine are parked in the garage of the borough building; just inside the door is a sign that says, “Keep Centralia on the Map.”

Henry Klimowicz, a retiree from nearby Mount Carmel who comes to Centralia to exercise, said tourists often stop him and ask, “Where’s Centralia?” — not realizing they are in the middle of it.

“They want to see the big mine fire,” said Klimowicz, taking a stroll around one of the town’s cemeteries. “I tell them it’s all in the ground, buried deep.”

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