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After 50 years, mine fire still burns

CENTRALIA, Pa., April 26-28, 1987 -- A bird is singing cheerily. A house finch, I will determine years later, after becoming better acquainted with their calls. For now, all I know is it has something to say and does so virtually alone. Very infr...

Abandoned road
David DeKok stands on abandoned Route 61 in Centralia, Pa., on Thursday. Fifty years ago today, a fire at the town dump spread to a network of coal mines underneath hundreds of homes and business in the northeastern Pennsylvania borough of Centralia, eventually forcing the demolition of nearly every building. (Michael Rubinkam / Associated Press)

CENTRALIA, Pa., April 26-28, 1987 -- A bird is singing cheerily. A house finch, I will determine years later, after becoming better acquainted with their calls. For now, all I know is it has something to say and does so virtually alone. Very infrequently, a car passes on the main drag, and there aren't many streets beyond it. Nearly all the houses are boarded up.

It is exactly as I expected: a ghost town.

Except don't tell that to the two women chatting on the sidewalk.

"It's a pretty little town," Molly Darrah, the borough president, says outside her home next to the shuttered bank.

"Yes," agrees Mary Lou Gaughan, repeating with Darrah, "nice town," "pretty town." One of the street signs says "Bunny Blvd.," and Gaughan still grows tulips. She shows off her garden, then thumbs through a scrapbook.

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"People who left said, 'We got a house, not a home,'" she says. "The government totally destroyed this town."

Her assignment of blame isn't shared by everyone, though few would deny Centralia was destroyed. Neither is there universal agreement on the details of its demise, though the most accepted version is that embers at the dump spread to an exhausted coal mine.

That was May 27, 1962.

It kept burning. Eventually, steam could be seen coming out of the ground. In 1981, a 12-year-old boy was rescued after being sucked into a sinkhole, and the government that Gaughan speaks of derisively began offering to buy homes and relocate people.

She insists those who stayed are happier.

"There (are) some happy people staying over there," she gestures across the way.

By now, 43 families are left out of a previous population of 1,200, and the state and feds have allocated about $40 million for relocation, Steve Jones, the state's project coordinator for Centralia, tells me. The decision to encourage relocation comes after failed attempts to extinguish the fire "ran into funding problems," he says, placing that cost a few years earlier at $100 million.

Relocation, then, is cheaper. But the program is voluntary.

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"The government does not want to force people out," Jones says, and for those who stay, the job of his team is to make sure they're safe. I accompany technician Dennis Wolf on his rounds testing the inhabited homes for carbon monoxide.

Gaughan and Darrah put up with it but insist they're fine. So is Maude Howey on Troutwine Street. She's 90, and if the sinkholes and fumes haven't gotten to her by now, she's probably immune.

Gaughan says the efforts are misdirected.

"Get the fire out," she says. "It's burning itself out. ... Get the fire out and live content."

* * *

It didn't burn itself out. Another quarter-century passes, and the fire is still burning. I never got to tell the story I traveled there to report for the Christian Science Monitor's now-defunct Monitor Radio. Someone accidentally scheduled it for the wrong date, missing the May 27 anniversary that year. The network apologized and cut a "kill fee" check to thank me for my efforts.

Now, an Associated Press report tells of the 50th anniversary. On a lark, I search for my datebook from 1987. Miraculously, I find it, with Darrah's address and directions to her house. There are scribbles of the conversations with her and Gaughan, and with Jones and Wolf.

A note to myself says "Bring News-Chronicles." It's cryptic at first but makes sense in a rush of memory: Of course I would have shared with them the stories of Northland residents recently displaced by the closure of Reserve Mining in Silver Bay.

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Maude Howey died a few years later, at 96. A news article says Darrah also passed away, though I can't quite confirm a record of it online. Jones has retired. Gaughan has moved to Mt. Carmel, a stone's throw away, and I can't confirm her number. No one answers the one I try.

The datebook also has directions to David DeKok's house, in nearby Shamokin, and notations indicate we met. A local reporter, for the Shamokin News-Item and later the Harrisburg Patriot-News, he is the author of two seminal books about Centralia, "Unseen Danger" (1986) and "Fire Underground" (2009).

We're in the future now, with innumerable ways to connect. On Saturday, we do so in seconds on Facebook, then the phone.

"There's fewer than nine people left," DeKok says, and the mine is still burning.

"It doesn't seem to be as intense as it was a few years ago. It's possible because it's moved deeper into the mine's workings. There are still places you can see steam coming out of the ground. If you put your hands down there, it's still hot, plus there are cracks in the road."

And it looks even more deserted now.

"If you had only seen it in 1987, there were still a good number of houses left," he says. "Now there are big, empty areas, streets that go nowhere, all overgrown. It's kind of a weird place."

Though there was bitterness over the relocation, many also welcomed it, DeKok continues.

"The problem that people had in the early '80s before the relocation was approved was that people owned their houses but they weren't really valuable. It wasn't that they were holding out for money. They just didn't want to be impoverished," he says.

"In the first relocation, in 1981, they got bad deals. There was such a backlash that when the big relocation happened in January 1984, the government said people would not be penalized. It ended up being one of the most generous disaster relocations ever. I think most people would say the prices were fair."

For the hard-core holdouts, though, "That was not the issue for them. They were very zealous about wanting to save Centralia as a community."

One who still lives in what DeKok calls the heart of the fire area is Carl Womer, 88. Associated Press reporter Michael Rubinkam approached him recently hosing down his front porch in preparation for Memorial Day.

"What mine fire?" Rubinkam quotes him saying. "If you go up and see a fire, you come back and tell me."

I find a number for Womer and give him a call. While keeping my journalistic objectivity, I'm prepared to tell him my take of the fire's effect, or lack of it, on Howey's longevity, positing that it probably hasn't hurt him much, either.

I don't get the chance.

"I'm sorry," he says quickly. "I've had enough. Thank you."

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com .

Centralia, Pa. April 1987
A view of homes and businesses, mostly boarded up, along the main street of Centralia, Pa., in 1987, just shy of the 25th anniversary of the mine fire. A quarter century later, "Now there are big, empty areas, streets that go nowhere, all overgrown," says author David DeKok. Photo by Robin Washington.

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