Zip Code 00000

By Tyler Currie
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Warning -- Danger

Underground Mine Fire

Walking or Driving in this Area Could Result in Serious Injury or Death. Dangerous Gases are Present. Ground is Prone to Sudden Collapse

-- Sign posted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in Centralia, Pa.

Not much of a welcome sign for visitors, is it? But at least I'm not the first person to ignore the warning and walk down this closed section of Route 61 in eastern Pennsylvania's coal country. There are dozens of footprints in the crusty snow, evidence of the many curious, if not reckless, tourists who are regularly drawn to Centralia.

This is a very small town. No, that's not right. Centralia used to be a very small town. Today, just a handful of resolute diehards keep Centralia from becoming a total ghost town. There are no more businesses here. The charred remains of Centralia's last operating store, a motorcycle shop called Speed Spot, sit at the deserted center of town. The last church was demolished years ago, but its cemetery is still well groomed. There are no schools. Last year, the U.S. Postal Service said it was eliminating Centralia's Zip code. And year by year, its people are disappearing too. Just 20 are left now, down from more than a thousand two decades ago.

In this part of Pennsylvania, a mine town gone bust is hardly news. But there is none whose demise has been so spectacular and observable. Centralia has been on fire, literally, for the past four decades.

The Centralia mine fire began in 1962 when a pile of burning trash ignited an exposed seam of coal. The fire soon seeped down into the lattice of old mine tunnels beneath town. When it was founded in 1866, Centralia's ocean of underground coal, aptly named the Mammoth Vein, meant limitless wealth. But once the fire began, it came to mean endless destruction.

This abandoned section of Route 61 runs smack through one of Centralia's so-called hot zones. In these areas the underground fire directly affects the surface landscape. The traffic that used to flow over this section of road has been permanently detoured several hundred yards to the east. Thanks to a recent snowfall, the tracks of other visitors are obvious -- that is until the snow cover abruptly ends. It's as if someone has drawn a line across the road. On one side there's snow. On the opposite side there's bone-dry asphalt. The road's surface is not exactly warm. But the asphalt is definitely not as cold as it should be on a chilly day in the Appalachian Mountains. In the roadside woods, all the trees are dead, baked to death by the subterranean smolder. Even their bark has peeled away.

Further in, a crack 50 feet in length has ripped through the highway. Puffs of white gas steadily float out. I step to the edge of the crack. It's about two feet wide and two feet deep, filled with garbage and chunks of broken pavement. Then the wind shifts slightly, and a gas cloud bends in my direction. I cover my nose and mouth with the collar of my jacket. Standing on the roof of this inferno has suddenly lost its appeal. I turn and walk back to my car.

John Lokitis Jr., 33, is a holdout, one of the 20 souls whom the fire hasn't chased away. Lokitis has volunteered to play Virgil to my Dante on a tour of this man-made Inferno. It's easy to find his home -- it's one of only 10 occupied houses left in Centralia. The view from his front porch looks down onto what remains of his home town, a valley of grassy pastures that are actually razed lots. In the distance, a backhoe smashes through the husk of another deserted house. Yet Lokitis urges me to look beyond the desolation. The coming spring will be bursting with wildflowers and wildlife, he says. There is still beauty surrounding his house. Except this house isn't his. Not anymore. Not since the state seized it.

While the mine fire began in the spring of 1962, it wasn't until the 1980s that Centralians began to quit their town in droves. According to Lokitis, the catalyst for this exodus came on Valentine's Day 1981, when a patch of ground collapsed beneath the feet of a 12-year-old boy named Todd Domboski. The exposed subsidence was hot, deep and spewing carbon monoxide. Todd was lucky. He grabbed a tree root, and a cousin helped pull him up to safety.

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