Some events leave a lifetime of imprint emotionally and physically. The sorrow of a personal loss of a family member, relative friend doesn’t fade way easy. The destruction of one’s house household leaves you staring at a multitude of unresolved issues and cripples you emotionally and financially.
Centralia, Pennsylvania went through a massive fire Fifty years ago, a fire at the town dump ignited an exposed coal seam which led to the demolition of nearly every building in Centralia and wiped off a whole community of 1,400 simply gone.
The shadows of this incident still linger. It draws visitors from around the world who come to gawk at twisted, buckled Route 61. the sulfurous steam still rises sporadically from ground that’s warm to the touch,. The lonely streets still foray the struggle and sadness of those departed.
It’s a gruesome incident that provides theme for various for books, movies and plays the latest one debuting in March at a theater in New York.
The handful of residents who still occupy Centralia, doing their daily chores trying to lead a normal life, they look beyond this town drawing so much attention. It’s home for them and they love it.
“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.
The fire department set the town’s landfill ablaze on May 27, 1962 as an ill-fated attempt to tidy up for Memorial Day. The fire ignited the coal mines. Over the years the fire has spread to the vast network of mines beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.
However the evacuation attempt was successful as by the end of the 1980s, more than 1,000 people had moved and 500 structures demolished under a $42 million federal relocation program.
Still some occupants refused to go. Even after their houses were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s. The reasons they gave were that the fire posed little danger to their part of town and 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.
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 however understands the hassles of the workers and 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 claims that : even though 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,” Altares said.
Author and journalist David DeKok, who’s been writing about Centralia for more than 30 years, said that says “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 talk about the beautiful Centralia in a nostalgic tone. There’s a lifetime of memories attached to the place you have lived in where you have seen your children grow up and play in the backyard.
“I loved it. I always liked Centralia from the time I was old enough to understand what it was,” said Mary Chapman, 72, a former resident who returns to Centralia, regularly.