“ This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.“- David DeKok (1986)
What foul place is Mr. DeKok describing? Tartarus? Hell? The underground of some alien world?
No. He was describing a very real place, right here in the United States. A place by the name of Centralia, Pennsylvania.
A sleepy little town in rural Pennsylvania, not a lot happened in Centralia. The residents were a hardworking bunch, many of whom worked in the anthracite coal mines that dotted the region. Even now, and especially then, the coal industry was one of the biggest industries in the area.
Coal mines were so common and the coal so plentiful that tunnels snaked beneath parts of the town, and there were certainly veins of the black stuff under parts where the tunnels didn’t reach.
Nobody gave the matter much thought, and it was certainly not on anyone’s mind back in May of 1962, when local volunteer firefighters were ordered to clear out the town’s landfill. The landfill was located in a strip mine pit near a cemetery towards the edge of town. The firefighters burned the trash, as was their normal practice, but apparently the fire was not properly extinguished. It smoldered in the pit, and eventually burned down into a vein of coal that lay untapped beneath.
And that, as they say, was that.
Some early attempts were made to fight the fire, but to no avail. It burned on beneath the townspeople’s feet, and outside of their notice. That is until a local gas station owner checked the fuel levels of his underground tanks with a stick. It came up hot, so he lowered a thermometer down there. It came back up reading 172 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then, in 1981, the situation became serious. A sinkhole opened up at the feet of Todd Domboski, 12, who was saved by the quick reaction of his cousin. Had he fallen in, he would have perished in a cloud of steam and noxious gases.
After near tragedy, Congress acted by aiding residents with relocation efforts. Most residents accepted, but some few stayed behind, despite stern warnings to leave.
Nowadays, Centralia is still a sleepy little town. Not much happens on her empty streets. Only about seven people still live in the town, and there is still a church standing which seems unaffected by the fire. Nature has already begun to reclaim the land, with forests encroaching more and more every year.
Still, every now and then the Earth gives way, belching steam and gas, a not so subtle reminder of the fire that still burns below.
(Author’s Note – Been awhile since I wrote this post. Thought I’d come back and look it over once again. And I’d like to add that parts of the movie Silent Hill were filmed in Centralia, an appropriate backdrop for a horror movie if there ever was one!)