Monday, June 06, 2005
An aerial shot of the small town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Note the weird absence of houses. And people. And cars. And town. What on earth happened here? Read on to find out....
As regular toffeewomblers will know, I was in Las Vegas towards the end of last year, with my bro. While I was there, I did all the usual things - gamble pitifully small amounts, eat huge buffet breakfasts, stare at the fake Eiffel Tower, wonder about the 'three whores for $99' adverts pasted on every taxicab.
But I also heard a very curious story. Happened like this: one night my brother and I were in the Harley Davidson bar (on the Strip, you can't miss it, there's a huge Electraglide hoisted over the entrance). While we were in there drinking our Buds, a rather giddy woman in her mid forties started chatting to me. My brother later told me she was coming on to me, but he may have been saying that just to make me depressed. Anyway, even if she was chatting me up, I was less interested in the contents of her ample pants than in what she was saying. This good if rather pissed woman was a lady firefighter from Pennsylvania. She was keen to tell me about a small town in her home state, where an underground fire had been burning for forty years. The fire was so bad, she said, it had closed the town down.
Could this be true? Sounded a bit far fetched. So, being an investigative journalist, and somewhat bored, I endeavoured to find out. Here's what I discovered....
A Town Called Toast - the weirdest little city in America
From the hills above, the little Pennsylvania town looks like any other settlement in the Appalachian valleys. Lots of telegraph poles, the usual grid of leafy streets. But as you drive closer, things get a bit weird. For a start there’s the sulphur smell. Then there’s the emptiness: most of the houses seem to have vanished. Finally you notice the drifts of sinister grey smoke.
Welcome to Centralia. Fifty years ago this mining town was just like a dozen others in the great coalfields of Pennsylvania USA - hard working, hard drinking, full of life.Then something terrible happened. Since that moment, Centralia’s population of 1300 has dwindled; now just seven people are left. As cynical locals say: here, everyone really does know your name.
The terrible event that led to Centralia’s demise seemed innocuous at first. In November 1961 a resident on the outskirts of town decided to burn some trash in a dump. Unfortunately, the dim-witted suburbanite didn’t realise - or didn’t care - that his dump was in an old open-cast coal mine. The mine concealed tunnels cut into the coal seams: the entrance to one tunnel was set on fire by the flaming trash.
At such an early stage the blaze could have been extinguished with just a few buckets of sand. But no one bothered. And so, over the following days and weeks, the coalfire spread, moving slowly down the tunnel, burning into thicker seams of anthracite. Black smoke was now billowing into the wintry air.
Belatedly, the authorities became concerned. But dealing with the fire now required a real effort, and hundreds of dollars. Crucial weeks passed as the bigwigs of the town bickered about their financial responsibilies. Should the fire department handle this? Or was it up to the mining companies? Some optimists claimed that the whole problem was exaggerated, anyway: they reckoned that the fire, lacking oxygen, would burn itself out. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Coal is an extraordinarily combustible substance. In warm airy circumstances coal can burst into flame spontaneously. In situations where there is little oxygen, coal burns more slowly, once alight. But it will keep burning until the fuel runs out: there is a coal seam in New South Wales, Australia that has been on fire for 5000 years.
Underground coal fires are also enormously dangerous. They burn at 12,000 degrees C, close to the temperature of the sun. This kind of compressed heat emits explosive gases, so the fires can suddenly accelerate, and burst onto the surface. The fumes and acidity that accompany these blazes can kill off whole forests, and everything that lives therein.
It was facts like these that finally began to impinge on the Centralia city council. Through the summer of 1962, six months after the fire kicked off, several attempts were made to stifle the tunnel blaze. Holes were drilled. Slurry was pumped. But each time the fire seemed to outpace the workmen; the exposure to oxygen actually increased the voracity of the inferno. At one point a frustrated firemen thought to hell with it, and drilled right into the heart of the fire, instead of ahead of it. This created a kind of mini volcano, with heat and flames streaking three hundred feet into the open air. And all the time the fire gulped down the oxygen. And grew.
Six months later the council tried again, and dug a trench. This didn’t work. Three years later the council got more money and tried pumping still more slurry. This didn’t work either. Over the following years various combinations of trenches, slurry, bore-holes, excavations and generalised jiggery pokery were all flung at the ravenous and maturing fire. None had any effect.
Through the seventies things went a bit quiet. Yes the fire was still expanding underground, but it seemed to be having no effect on town life. As a result, locals started to get blase. Provided the fire was undisturbed, they decided, the town would be OK.
This period of denial ended emphatically in November 1979, when shop-owner David Lamb noticed that he couldn’t light his basement furnace. The reason was that the fire just below his foundations had stolen his oxygen. No one suspected this - at first. But a few days later, down the road, Joseph was Coddington leaning against the walls of his basement when he felt a sharp stinging pain. The reason was that the basement walls were hot. Red hot: 180 degrees.
It was now 1980, and things were sure hotting up in Centralia, PA. That winter, snow melted as soon as it hit the ground - an unusual sight in the lofty Appalachians. Then the snow and rain turned to steam on the heated road surfaces, this steam floated off like fog, which caused several car accidents. Meanwhile, back at his house Joseph Coddington's dad John passed out in his sleep, and was rushed into hospital. The doctors pumped air into his lungs, the air that was missing from his home. The following week David Lamb’s daughter was also hospitalised from oxygen deprivation.
Still the authorities remained inert. But then in 1981 a small boy called Todd Doboski spotted clouds of smoke rising from his grandmother’s yard. Todd was too young to appreciate the danger: he went to peer at the smoke. As he did a huge great cavern suddenly yawned in front of him: the earth had finally collapsed into the fires beneath. Todd nearly fell into these hellish red flames, but he managed to clutch at a tree root, and held on for dear life until his cousin came to the rescue. Two months later the terrorised boy was still under sedation.
This near fatality demanded, at last, some action. But what? Unable to quell the actual flames, the authorities dumped tons of earth in the holes, and installed gas detectors in the houses. Incredibly, however, many on the council still refused to admit that the whole problem was the hundred acre coal fire merrily burning beneath the town. The powers-that-be knew that if they did admit that the fire was to blame, Centralia was doomed.
It was doomed anyway. Trees and flowers were dying, because they had been poisoned by the toxic air. Over in the local graveyard, enormous yellow flames were spotted shooting up between the gravestones, a sight so spooky it allegedly drove a fireman mad. People began moving, gratefully, into temporary accommodation.
Centralia was by this stage a big media story. TV journalists were spotted frying eggs on the broiling hot sidewalks. In this media limelight, there was a near civil war between different sides: some Centralians wanted to admit defeat and get the government to rehouse them, others still claimed that the fire would go out by itself, as it would be ‘halted by the water table’.
In the middle of the argument was the Federal government. It decided to have one last look at putting out the fire. After two months of expert examination, the conclusion was that it would cost billions to extinguish the flames (in stark contrast to the $172 initial estimate back in 1962). This was impossibly expensive. The same experts also concluded that the fire was still growing, and likely to keep growing, for at least another hundred years. State geologist Steve Jones said he could not rule out ‘the entire consumption of Centralia by fire’.
Centralia’s fate was sealed. Over the following two decades everyone slowly moved away, tempted by government grants. Some locals shifted up the road to Ashland PA, others went to a trailer park in a swamp, others quit the state altogether.
As they went, the wreckers moved in. The Victorian terraced houses were knocked down, row by row, occasionally leaving just one, thin, still-inhabited house, standing in a field of cinders. Around the town, heat-buckled roads were permanently closed off, or rerouted. Maps were changed to reflect Centralia’s tragic fate. In the centre of the little town itself, the forest was taking over. Poppies sprouted from the steps of City Hall, bears were spotted snuffling around the town’s derelict library. Centralia was officially dead.
Or... nearly dead. Despite the smoke that drifted from the verges, despite the red hot glow to the ground at night, despite the ever present danger from gas and heat, a few dozen diehards decided to remain. Mainly they were the elderly and the immobile. Given their age and infirmity lots of these people have since expired - naturally - over the years. Which means that just seven people remain in Centralia to this day.
This tiny population is, of course, expanded by sightseers, scientists and firefighters, and sometimes by ex Centralians on nostalgia trips. All of them have their opinions on the most bizarre place in America. Sally Furadi has been a firewoman all her life, she remembers the days in the mid 80s when Centralia really burned. 'The flames were blue, shooting out of the ground. The cliffsides were 1200 degrees. The whole place glowed at night. Man alive. Course it's still dangerous now. You wouldn't wanna live here.'
Her pessimistic opinion doesn't cut much ice with Eileen Lamb, an ex resident of the town. 'I miss the place bad. People here were so close, if you sneezed at St Ignatius's they'd say God bless you at Duffy's.' She twirls a stick in the ashy dust.
'You know where we're sitting? Right where Muldowney's bar was..' She shakes her head. 'But I guess that's why we can't move back, even if they let us, even if the fire has subsided. The town has gone.'
This consensus that Centralia is a dead town is certainly not shared by the actual residents. Joe Moyer is a retired miner who has appointed himself policeman. His duties don't amount to much: occasionally he wanders around to check on his dwindling flock. The other day he spotted that Bernie Darrah, a local old biddy given to sitting in her front window, had been dead for a few days. Her demise reduced the population of Centralia by about 15%. Nonetheless Joe Moyer has hopes for the town. 'Best place in the Anthracite, this was. We had a god-damn grand time of it here. And we could do again. The coal fire will finaly stop, one day soon, and then people will come back.'
Like the rest of the remaining Centralians, Moyer has a twinkling sense of humour, perhaps essential when your hometown is essentially a pizza oven. As he wanders past a half melted doll, asleep on a hot patch of pavement, Moyer laughs: ‘Centralia is the only place you can get buried and cremated for free.’ Then he looks at the weed-strewn empty lot, in front of the battered office still serving as City Hall. 'And you know, that fire has dramatically improved the parking situation’.
As he walks on, he bumps into Lamar Mervine, the 86 year old who serves as the town's astute but slightly doddery mayor. Together the two of them survey the smoky wilderness: the racoon-haunted supermarkets, the signs saying Dangerous Gases, the occasional burnt and blackened tree stump. 'In a way,' says Mervine. 'We're a bit like those guys who lived in monasteries, when the Roman Empire fell. We keep things going for the time the place is reborn. They may have wiped us off the maps, but they can't wipe away our memories, or take away our determination.'
But then he falls as silent as his city. Perhaps, as he does, he is remembering a bit of local legend.
The legend goes like this. One hundred years ago a band of rebel Irish miners beat up a priest in Centralia. The priest was so enraged he vowed to take his revenge in the only way he knew. And so, when he had recovered from his injuries, the priest climbed into his pulpit and uttered a terrible curse on the town. The curse was that, one day, Centralia should burn in hell for ever.
Posted by sean at 11:55 a.m.