“This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.“– David DeKok (1986)
The world Mr. DeKok was describing wasn’t an alien planet. He was describing conditions beneath a small Pennsylvania town named Centralia. It was a sleepy town where nothing happened; that is, until the early 1980s, when residents discovered the terrible secret burning beneath their feet.
An American ghost town
Coal was the life blood of Centralia. Most of its residents were employed in the mines dotting the area. Ironically enough, the very coal that gave the town life would ultimately kill it. That is because many coal seams and defunct mines snaked beneath the town itself. The town was one ill-placed flame away from disaster. The spark that began the inferno came when local volunteer firefighters were ordered to clear out the town’s landfill in May of 1962. The landfill was located in a strip mine pit near a cemetery on the edge of town. While the town had routinely used fire to clear the waste, this time it was not properly extinguished. Embers smoldered in the pit, and eventually burned down into a vein of coal that lay untapped beneath.
And that, as they say, was that.
Some early attempts were made to fight the fire, but they weren’t effective. It burned on beneath the townspeople’s feet — out of sight and out of mind– until the early 80s, when a local gas station owner checked the fuel levels of his underground tanks with a stick. It came up hot, so he lowered a thermometer to check the temperature. It came back up reading 172 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then, in 1981, the situation became serious. A sinkhole opened up at the feet of Todd Domboski, age 12, who was saved by the quick reaction of his cousin. Had he fallen in, he would have smothered to death in a cloud of steam and noxious gases.
After the near tragedy, Congress acted by aiding residents with relocation efforts. Most residents accepted, but a few stayed behind, despite stern warnings to leave.
Nowadays, Centralia is still a sleepy little town where nothing happens. Only about seven people still live there, and there is still a church standing which seems unaffected by the fire. Nature has already begun to reclaim the land, with forests encroaching more and more every year. Every now and then a sinkhole opens up and belches out steam and toxic gas, reminders that the inferno still rages deep underground.
“Centralia, Pennsylvania.” Wikipedia.org. March 22, 2014. Wikipedia. March 23, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia,_Pennsylvania>
O’Carrol, Eolin. “Centralia, Pa.: How an underground coal fire erased a town.” CSMonitor.com. February 5, 2010. The Christian Science Monitor. <http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Bright-Green/2010/0205/Centralia-Pa.-How-an-underground-coal-fire-erased-a-town>