Centralia, Pa. • Fifty years ago on Sunday, a fire at the town dump ignited an exposed coal seam, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to the demolition of nearly every building in Centralia — a whole community of 1,400 simply gone.
All these decades later, the Centralia fire still burns. It also maintains its grip on the popular imagination, drawing visitors from around the world who come to gawk at twisted, buckled Route 61, at the sulfurous steam rising intermittently from ground that’s warm to the touch, at the empty, lonely streets where nature has reclaimed what coal-industry money once built.
It’s a macabre story that has long provided fodder for books, movies and plays — the latest one debuting in March at a theater in New York.
Yet to the handful of residents who still occupy Centralia, who keep their houses tidy and their lawns mowed, this borough in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania is no sideshow attraction. It’s home, and they’d like to keep it that way.
“That’s all anybody wanted from day one,” said Tom Hynoski, who’s among the plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit aimed at blocking the state of Pennsylvania from evicting them.
Centralia was already a coal-mining town in decline when the fire department set the town’s landfill ablaze on May 27, 1962, in an ill-fated attempt to tidy up for Memorial Day. The fire wound up igniting the coal outcropping and, over the years, spread to the vast network of mines beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.
After a contentious battle over the future of the town, the side that wanted to evacuate won out. By the end of the 1980s, more than 1,000 people had moved and 500 structures demolished under a $42 million federal relocation program.
But some holdouts 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 rights to billions of dollars’ worth of anthracite coal, and vowed to stay put.
After years of letting them be, state officials decided a few years ago to take possession of the homes. The state Department of Community and Economic Development said Friday it’s in negotiations with one of the five remaining homeowners; the others are continuing to resist, pleading their case in federal court.
Residents say the state has better things to spend its money on. A handwritten sign along the road blasts Gov. Tom Corbett, the latest chief executive to inherit a mess that goes back decades.
“You and your staff are making budget cuts everywhere,” the sign says. “How can you allow (the state) to waste money trying to force these residents out of their homes? These people want to pay their taxes and be left alone and live where they choose!”
Whether it’s safe to live there is subject to debate.
Tim Altares, a geologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said that while temperatures in monitoring boreholes are down — possibly indicating the fire has followed the coal seam deeper underground — the blaze still poses a threat because it has the potential to open up new paths for deadly gases to reach the remaining homes.
“It’s very difficult to quantify the threat, but the major threat would be infiltration of the fire gases into the confined space of a residential living area. That was true from the very beginning and will remain true even after the fire moves out of the area,” Alteres said.
Nonsense, say residents who point out they’ve lived for decades without incident.
Carl Womer, 88, whose late wife, Helen, was the leader of a faction that fiercely resisted the government buyout, disagrees the fire poses any threat.
“What mine fire?” Womer asked dismissively as he hosed down his front porch, preparing, he said, for a Memorial Day picnic. “If you go up and see a fire, you come back and tell me.”
Author and journalist David DeKok, who’s been writing about Centralia for more than 30 years, said that while he believes Womer’s house is too close to the fire to safely live there, Hynoski and his neighbors are far enough away.
“I don’t think there’s any great public safety problem in letting those people stay there,” said DeKok, author of “Fire Underground,” a book on the town.
Many former residents, meanwhile, prefer to talk about the good times, their nostalgia taking on a decidedly golden hue.
“I loved it. I always liked Centralia from the time I was old enough to understand what it was,” said Mary Chapman, 72, who left in 1986 but returns once a month to the social club at the Centralia fire company.
“If you came out of your house and you couldn’t get your car started, the neighbor would come out and he’d help you. You didn’t even have to ask,” Chapman continued. “Of course the neighbors knew your business, but they also were there to help you, too.”