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PA: Underground coal fire still burns 48 years later

Discussion in 'The Okie Corral' started by Smashy, Feb 5, 2010.

  1. Smashy

    Smashy

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    Feb 5, 2010 (6:04a CST)
    By MICHAEL RUBINKAM (Associated Press Writer)

    CENTRALIA, Pa. - Standing before the wreckage of his bulldozed home, John Lokitis Jr. felt sick to his stomach, certain that a terrible mistake had been made.

    He'd fought for years to stay in the house. It was one of the few left standing in the moonscape of Centralia, a once-proud coal town whose population fled an underground mine fire that began in 1962 and continues to burn.

    [​IMG]

    But the state had ordered Lokitis to vacate, leaving the fourth-generation Centralian little choice but to say goodbye - to the house, and to what's left of the town he loved.

    "I never had any desire to move," said Lokitis, 39. "It was my home."

    After years of delay, state officials are now trying to complete the demolition of Centralia, a borough in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania that all but ceased to exist in the 1980s after the mine fire spread beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.

    More than 1,000 people moved out, and 500 structures were razed under a $42 million federal relocation program.

    But dozens of holdouts, Lokitis included, refused to go - even after their houses were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s. They said the fire posed little danger to their part of town, accused government officials and mining companies of a plot to grab the mineral rights and vowed to stay put. State and local officials had little stomach to oust the diehards, who squatted tax- and rent-free in houses they no longer owned.

    Steve Fishman, attorney for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said "benign neglect" on the part of state and local officials allowed the residents to stay for so long.

    No more.

    Fishman told The Associated Press that the state is moving as quickly as possible to take possession of the remaining homes and get them knocked down.

    "Everyone agreed that we needed to move this along," he said.

    In 2006, there were 16 properties left standing. A year ago, the town was down to 11. Now there are five houses occupied with fewer than a dozen holdouts.

    Centralia appears to be entering its final days.

    The remaining holdouts, weary after decades of media scrutiny, rarely give interviews. But the town's 86-year-old mayor, Carl Womer, said he doubts he'll have to go. Indeed, Lokitis and others believe that elderly residents will be allowed to live out their final years in Centralia - even after a Columbia County judge decides next month how much they should be paid for their homes.

    "Nothing's happened. We're still here," said Womer, whose wife, Helen, who died in 2001, was an implacable foe of relocation. "No one's told us to move."

    Like Womer, resident John Lokitis Sr., 68, father of Lokitis Jr., was polite but short. "Why worry about it? When it comes, it comes. I don't give a rat's ***," he said, shutting the door.

    Those who remain in Centralia like to keep up appearances. In mid-January, Christmas decorations still adorned the street lamps, a large manger scene occupied a corner of the main intersection and a 2010 calendar hung in the empty borough building. But the holdouts are fighting a losing battle. The building's wooden facade is in dire need of a paint job; in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, vandals recently knocked over dozens of tombstones. Nature has reclaimed parts of the town.

    In reality, Centralia is already a memory - an intact street grid with hardly anything on it. All the familiar places that define a town - churches, businesses, schools, homes - are long gone.

    A hand-lettered sign tacked to a tree near Womer's home directs tourists to a rocky outcropping off the main street where opaque clouds of steam rise from the ground.

    "It was a real community, and people loved the place," said author and journalist Dave DeKok, who has been writing about Centralia for 30 years and recently published "Fire Underground," an updated version of his 1986 book on the town. "People lived their entire lives in that town and would have been quite happy to get rid of the mine fire and keep on living there."

    With swifter action, DeKok said, that might have been Centralia's destiny.

    The fire began at the town dump and ignited an exposed coal vein. It could have been extinguished for thousands of dollars then, but a series of bureaucratic half-measures and a lack of funding allowed the fire to grow into a voracious monster - feeding on millions of tons of slow-burning anthracite coal in the abandoned network of mines beneath the town.

    At first, most Centralians ignored the fire. Some denied its existence, choosing to disregard the threat.

    That changed in the 1970s, when carbon monoxide began entering homes and sickening people. The beginning of the end came in 1981, when a cave-in sucked a 12-year-old boy into a hot, gaseous void, nearly killing him. The town divided into two warring camps, one in favor of relocation and one opposed.

    Finally, in 1983, the federal government appropriated $42 million to acquire and demolish every building in Centralia. Nearly everyone participated in the voluntary buyouts; by 1990, Census figures showed only 63 people remaining.

    Two years later, Gov. Robert Casey decided to shut the town, saying the fire had become too dangerous. The holdouts fought condemnation, blocking appraisers from entering their homes. The legal process eventually ground to a halt.

    Until recently, Lokitis Jr., who works a civilian job with the state police in Harrisburg, had been one of Centralia's most vocal defenders - star of a 2007 documentary on Centralia. He expressed hope that it could stage a comeback, claiming the fire had gone out or moved away.

    State officials say the fire continues to burn uncontrolled and could for hundreds of years, until it runs out of fuel. One of their biggest concerns is the danger to tourists who often cluster around steam vents on unstable ground.

    While Lokitis felt he was in no danger, he had little recourse than to move from his late grandfather's two-story row home on West Park Street when an order to vacate arrived, one of two such notices sent last year.

    Now living a few miles away, he tacked a sign on the front porch of the old homestead. "REQUIESCAT IN PACE" - rest in peace, it said. "SORRY POP."

    He couldn't bear to watch the home get knocked down a few weeks before Christmas. But he couldn't stay away, either, going back after the wrecking crew had finished its work.

    "It was part of my life for all 39 years, that house," he said. "It was difficult to leave it and difficult to see it demolished."

    Difficult, too, to give up his dream of Centralia's rebirth.

    "I'd always hoped the town would come back and be rebuilt," Lokitis said, "but I guess that's never going to happen."


    http://kai03.qwest.com/WindowsLive/...&id=D9DM0IMG0@news.ap.org&client=gadget&qid=0
     
  2. Foxterriermom

    Foxterriermom No place like home

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    Just read about this on Yahoo. I would really like to read the book that was mentioned in the article. I had no idea such a place existed. Sounds fascinating.
     

  3. creaky

    creaky Pamwe Chete

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    There it is.

    And government wants to run our healthcare and all other aspects of our lives.
     
  4. ShamGlock

    ShamGlock

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    The History channel ran a bit on this town sometime back. It was tragic to see these people lose their homes and town just based off greed and incompetence.
     
  5. Kith

    Kith

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    I went there once, spent a whole day walking around in the town.

    You could see on the mountainside, as you were driving up to it, the swath cut through from the underground fire, where trees were dead and gone in a line, and new growth sprouting up behind.

    The ground really is warm, almost hot, if you stand in one spot for too long it can be pretty uncomfortable. The air is really dry too.

    The people were awesome. Everyone was friendly, and all wanted to edsucate people who came through about the history of their town, and the fire. Many glasses of lemonade were served on porches to me that day!

    I'm sorry to hear they are evicting the last of the people from the town. They should be able to live there if they choose. The people I met were very proud of staying.

    It was a great trip, if you are anywhere near Centralia, I recommend stopping by.
     
  6. TrybalRage

    TrybalRage

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    I've done some driving and ATV'ing around the area when I lived in PA. There is a section of highway that had to be cut off and re-routed because the heat caused the road to buckle severely, kind of wild to see. Wikipedia has some pictures and links.

    Also, if you are in the area, there is a closed coal mine in Ashland that you can take a tour through - Pioneer something or other. Kind of neat. Actually, found a link - http://www.pioneertunnel.com/home.shtml
     
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2010
  7. anyplainjoe

    anyplainjoe Nobody special.

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  8. E-2-E

    E-2-E Long Trail

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    I also saw that. It was very interesting.
     
  9. Jbar4Ranch

    Jbar4Ranch B-Western Hero Millennium Member

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    :rofl: I like this guy!
     
  10. Retseh

    Retseh

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    Been to Centralia twice, the main road in is completely buckled with large cracks, we found a half empty bottle of Yingers and stuck it into one of the deeper cracks and watched it boil no more than 4 inches below the surface. The cemetary was where you could see most of the smoke, coming out out a large depression that looked like maybe it was the original garbage pile where it all began. The whole place smelled of sulphur and coal smoke, and we watched amazed as a lady hung out her washing at one of the few occupied houses.

    Truly an amazing place to visit.
     
  11. Flying-Dutchman

    Flying-Dutchman

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    My business takes me through Centralia once in a while so I have watched it transform over the years.

    It used to be a strange grid of city streets with no houses.

    You could see some places where smoke would come out of the ground but it did not appear to be dangerous.

    I went through what was Centralia a few weeks ago.

    It is amazing how quickly nature takes over.

    You can hardly tell a town ever existed on the site.

    I did not see any smoke.

    It is another example of the nanny state in my opinion.
     
  12. Jeremy_K

    Jeremy_K

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    Google says it's 100 miles from my house. I've been wanting to go check it out one of these days.
     
  13. Steve in PA

    Steve in PA

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    Been through Centralia many times...........not much to see. Sorry, but there is no cheap and easy way to put out an underground mine fire. I live in Luzerne county and there is a smaller mine fire in my area (Google Laurel Run mine fire). They tried everything to put out the fire, didn't work. It may be contained now....but not sure. As a kid my friends and I used to play in and around this whole mountain. Using the smoke from the ground we used to pretend we were back in caveman times......lots of fun and memories.

    http://www.undergroundminers.com/laurelrun.html

    http://www.fifedrum.org/rhinohug/LaurelRunBB.html
     
  14. Critias

    Critias Freelancer CLM

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    Better go while there's still something to see. Seems like there might not be anything there, for much longer.
     
  15. Flying-Dutchman

    Flying-Dutchman

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    Yep, not much to see anymore.

    You are liable to miss it if you are not paying attention.

    I do not know why people insist on staying.

    It is not like there is a shortage of run down coal towns in the area.

    I am not knocking the area though as I always figured if I end up broke and retired there is safe cheap living to be had.
     
  16. lunarspeak

    lunarspeak

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    by what ive read to put this out will cost tens of millions of dollars and would require drilling thousands of holes and sending water down them for 1 to 2 years..also going over the whole area with machinery to cover every vent.

    if the town wants to pay for it i say good for them...but if they think the goverment is going to pay for it useing my tax money well im going to have to say no sir..


    id rather my taxes go to build a bridge or a repave the road then to save a town of 9 people...
     
  17. Mnukedude

    Mnukedude Lurking

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    The whole idea of the hot ground is interesting. It would be fascinating to explore the effects of the fire.
     
  18. Annoyedgrunt

    Annoyedgrunt Dry Heat my ASS

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    Where does the air to fuel the fire come from if it's underground? That's what I've been wondering.
     
  19. Jeremy_K

    Jeremy_K

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    If it's in the mine shafts and tunnels, there is quite a bit of cool air movement down there. I took a tour of one up in Scranton and it was like a whole different climate with wind currents and everything. It doesn't take much O2 once coals get hot and smolder. Kind of like a wood burning stove.
     
  20. DrMaxit

    DrMaxit Dirtbag Airman

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    Very interested read. I was also wondering about how the fire gets air, I figured it would be easiest to just fill the shafts with dirt? or use dynamite to put the fire out wouldn't be that hard? Then again I don't know much about coal... or underground fire.

    Feeling a warm ground based on a fire underneath would be trippy for sure.