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Centralia, Pa., where a coal fire has burned since 1962, is a disappearing town. For some, that makes it a hot destination.

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.

But the incident galvanized public opinion: Centralia was no longer safe. In 1984 the U.S. Congress appropriated $42 million to evacuate, on a voluntary basis, every last resident. But a few people like Lokitis didn't want to leave.

"This was my grandparents' house," he says. "It will always be home. I can't imagine not being here."

Pennsylvania, however, saw things differently. By 1992 the holdouts were no longer being asked to leave -- they were being told. In the name of public safety, the state declared eminent domain over the whole town. Shortly thereafter, all the houses were condemned. But Lokitis refused to budge and is now a squatter in the house where he grew up.

Lokitis adamantly rejects the idea that living in Centralia is dangerous. Outside the hot zones, he says, the ground is stable. The mine fire has never actually killed anyone, he notes, pointing out that many of his neighbors have lived into their nineties in spite of the reportedly toxic gases. Lokitis says the state would have already kicked him out, along with the other holdouts, except that no decision maker wants to be responsible for dragging people from their homes. "I guess they're waiting for us to die off. They figure the problem will take care of itself."

So Lokitis stays, an unofficial guide to the steady trickle of oddball tourists that comes through, curiosity seekers attracted almost perversely to Centralia's strange and sad history. "There're quite a few curious people," he says. "Most people have never witnessed anything like Centralia -- the heat and smoke rising out of the ground. Sometimes I feel like an exhibit. They're amazed. They usually ask, 'Why did you stay?' My answer is simple: This is home."

Lokitis finds his house in an aerial photograph of Centralia from the '70s, when houses lined his entire street. Today his porch faces a vacant field. "It's kind of strange," he says. "The past 20 years, seeing everything slowly being erased . . . piece by piece."

The way out of town passes Hammie's Hill, Centralia's one hot zone where there are still open, navigable roads. To drive there, one must ignore the warning sign, of course. And through the clouds of white gas appears a minivan that has done just that. It has New Jersey plates -- more tourists who have come to see the town that some say will burn for the next thousand years.

Escape Keys

Although state roads still pass through Centralia's hot zones and it is not illegal to enter them, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection actively discourages it.

From a distance you can still get a good look at the mine fire on Hammie's Hill, which is best viewed early in the morning or on a cool day.

GETTING THERE: Centralia is about 180 miles from D.C. Take I-95 north, go west on I-695, north on I-83 and north on I-81 until Exit 119. Take a left onto Gordon Mountain Road. Follow for two miles and turn right at the T intersection, then a quick left onto McKnight Street, which becomes state Route 61. Follow 61 into Ashland and then into Centralia.

STAYING (NEAR) THERE: There's no lodging in Centralia, but in nearby Ashland the Stained Glass Turret bed-and-breakfast (425 Centre St., 570-875-4844, www.victorianturret.com) is a quaint, comfortable place to rest for $105 a night. Bonus: the innkeeper's homemade breakfast scones. The Pine Burr Inn (570-339-3870, www.pineburrinn.com),on Route 61 west of Mount Carmel, is simple, cheap (starting at $78) and only about four miles from Centralia.

EATING THERE: It's coal country, so don't expect haute cuisine. Two bucks will buy you a cheeseburger at Danny's Drive-in in Ashland. For the best food in the region, according to one innkeeper, try Mattucci's on Willow Street in Mount Carmel. Be warned, it's closed on Sundays and Mondays.

THINGS TO DO: You can journey 1,800 feet into the side of a mountain for a guided tour of a real coal mine at Ashland's Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine & Steam Train. Take a sweater. Details: $7.50 for a half-hour tour; 570-875- 3850, www.pioneertunnel.com, opens in April.

To place the Centralia mine fire in historical context, visit the Museum of Anthracite Mining (570-875-4708, opens in June) in Ashland.

INFO: For Ashland, Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, 800-765-7282, www.schuylkill.org, or Columbia- Montour Visitors Bureau, 800-847-4810, www.cmtpa.org.

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