The fire under Centralia is largely invisible. There are no flames, only smoke and steam. The ground belches, it sends toxic fumes into the homes of the townspeople, it melts snow in winter, sometimes it simply falls away.
This tired, mountainside mining town, sitting on enormous veins of coal and man-made burrowings after that coal, has been living with its fire at least since 1962.
The damage done to Centralia is like the damage firemen do to a burning house while trying to save it. The government has bought or leveled 36 homes in 20 years of firefighting. It has punctured the ground of the town with enormous drilling rigs more than 1,800 times in vain attempts to track, suffocate, direct and quench the fire. The government has ripped huge pits in the ground trying to dig the fire out or block its progress and piled the earth back into those pits, leaving the southeast corner of the town and the area just beyond looking like the moon. And leaving the fire burning.
The fire has done another sort of damage to the once close-knit people who live in this town. It has scorched the relationships between them, and they have cracked away from each other. Centralians disagree about what should be done about the fire, about who should do it, about how it should be done. They disagree about whose fault the fire is, about where the fire is, about how dangerous it is. The people fight not only the fire, they fight themselves.
Catherene Jurgill, 21, is not one of the fighters. She doesn't fight with her neighbors, she doesn't fight the fire. She is leaving. She has had enough. She is worried about her two children, who are 3 and 1.
She talked in her home amid scattered baby toys, the sound of "Sesame Street" on TV and the smell of diapers. In a corner of her living room squats a $1,500 gas detector. It clucks quietly to itself all the time, sniffing for the gases given off by the fire. When it thinks it smells something, it chirps like a canary. The meter was installed by the state about a year ago, when gases from the fire started turning up in the basements of homes in the Jurgills' neighborhood.
"I have trouble sleeping at night because I'm worried about the children," says Jurgill. "I worry when the gas levels are high, not so much in the summer, but in the winter when the house is all closed up.
"And my Katrina is just getting to the age where she'd like to take a walk a block or so away, and who's always going to be there to say, 'Hey, you can't go off this block, it's not safe'? She's bound to wander."
Across the street, the ground opened up on Valentine's Day 1980 beneath 12-year-old Todd Domboski, playing in his grandmother's back yard with a cousin. Twelve feet down, Todd managed to grab a root. There was nothing beneath his feet but open space. His cousin pulled him out. The hole from which Todd was pulled smoked and steamed, and took 25 tons of material to fill.
A block away, in fact, there are no houses, only grassy lots where houses used to be and slim pipes reaching six feet into the air, jetting out sulferous smoke and steam.
Jurgill lives in one of the eight homes left in the far south end of Centralia. A block away, the federal government bought and leveled homes and a gas station because it considered them dangerous to occupy. There was danger that the ground on which the homes were built, weakened by heat from the fire, would subside. And there was danger from toxic gases seeping into the houses from the ground.
Jurgill moved into Centralia from a neighboring town when she married her husband, a native, who bought the home just before they were married. Now, says Catherene Jurgill, "We're looking for a new house, in Frackville about five miles away . We're saving, and as soon as we get enough money, we're moving." The Jurgills have to save, because there is no market for their home. They'll just hang on to it after they move out, hoping some day it will be worth something.
Centralia, about an hour north of Harrisburg, about four blocks wide and a mile long, now has about 900 people in it. It has a post office, a gas station, three bars, a couple of candy stores, a video arcade that used to be a carpet store. It has a large furniture store and a small dress factory. It has no hotel, no restaurant, no fast-food outlets.
Mostly, Centralia is row houses filled with retired miners and their families. Depending on whom you ask, between 60 and 80 percent of the town lives on a fixed income: black lung benefits, disability, Social Security.
Centralia might have been dying without the fire. The mines underneath it had, in the early '60s, become less profitable. The few remaining were forced to close by the fire. There is now no work in the town, no work in the region, nothing in Centralia to hold the young. There are very few young to hold.
It is inexpensive to live in Centralia; even before the fire, homes were in the $10,000 range. The people are solid Democratic stock, friendly and hard-working or retired from hard work.
Joan Girolami, 39, wants out of Centralia. She's lived here for the last 17 years, her father worked in the mines beneath the town, lost an arm there. Joan Girolami has raised two daughters in the town, has a house with a swimming pool and has an unappeasable desire to get out.
Girolami, too, has a gas meter in her home. She says her home is dangerous to live in because of gases, says it is worthless because of the fire, says the fire burns because the government won't put it out, and she wants the government to buy her home so she, her husband and her daughters can leave.
Girolami is vice president of Concerned Citizens Organized Against the Centralia Mine Fire, locally called Concerned Citizens. The organization came into being in spring 1981, about the time, Girolami's critics will quickly point out, that the federal government decided the Girolami home was safe enough to live in and refused her demand that she be bought out.
The fire has begun to consume Girolami's life. As vice president of Concerned Citizens, she has spent hours writing letters, lobbying legislators and bureaucrats, talking to the press, plotting strategy, fighting what she sees as more than 20 years of government "neglect and lies." "The government doesn't care about the people of Centralia," she says. "They don't care about our health and safety, about how much money we waste. As long as they can keep lying to the people, they won't have to spend government bucks in this town."
"Everything we have is in this house. I have a $6,000 pool in the back yard. I have everything I want here, except the fire. If it wasn't for the fire, I wouldn't want to leave this town." And, she points out, her home is absolutely worthless. Who, except the government, would buy a home equipped with its own toxic-gas meter?
The immediate threat to Girolami's home is unclear. The location of the fire is unclear. But a large portion of the town has a very clear opinion about Girolami. They think her a selfish, screeching complainer. "People that don't like me, people that say Mrs. Girolami should shut her mouth, I wonder how they'd like to live in Mrs. Girolami's house," says Girolami in response to the criticism.
There is a smaller group in town that thinks Girolami an effective, energetic community activist, one of the few working against the people's increasing cynicism, bureaucrats' sloth and the reluctance of some older residents to acknowledge the danger of the fire.
Even if the entire town were relocated as a unit, something for which the Concerned Citizens once strongly lobbied, Girolami wouldn't go with them. "How could you forgive and forget?" she asks, referring to the bitter squabbles that have developed between the Concerned Citizens and others in the town. Girolami's view is that the bulk of the town is simply ignoring the truth about the fire because the truth would disrupt their lives.
This makes her angry. "How could you want to live by your neighbor when she doesn't give a ---- if you wake up in the morning?" she asks. "It's impossible for me to ever care for my neighbors after all this. I'm not bitter, I've just had enough."
Every morning at about 9, Dennis Wolfe sets out from his office in the borough building at the north end of town for the homes at the south end. He walks along slung with a carbon monoxide monitor, a methanometer and Drager tubes (for detecting carbon dioxide). Wolfe, 30, is a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER) chemist, and his job is to check the homes of those in the area of the fire for dangerous gases.
Twenty homes are checked for gases every day, another 25 once a week. Those in the area who don't want their homes checked, about half, don't let Wolfe or his partner in. Those who worry about the gases, like Girolami and Jurgill, welcome him like a good friend, are comfortable with him poking his meters in their drains and basements while they stand by in their nightgowns. Wolfe, who lives in the town, says, "I'm just a neighbor who comes and visits them."
Thomas Gerrity, 73, has no use for either Dennis Wolfe or Joan Girolami. He lives a block from the Jurgills, across the street from the empty lots where there used to be homes. Is he worried about the fire? "Noooooo. We sleep. We don't feel any gas. We don't worry about it. We're living in the coal region all our lives."
Gerrity is retired from the mines 35 years now, and he's been in Centralia for 38 years. Sitting on his porch wheezing heavily, he recalled the government's early efforts to dig the fire out, or to block it from the town with a trench. "They had shovels up there a couple of times, but they were more interested in getting the coal than the fire, which is only natural.
"They let the work stand over the weekend, and the fire would catch up. They only worked the day shift, and they shoulda worked around the clock." He shakes his head. "There's been a lot of mistakes made."
He thinks the government is continuing to stall. As he sat on his porch, state and federal officials were in Centralia, launching yet another project, this one a borehole-drilling project costing $850,000 and specifically designed to find out where the fire is, where it is going and what the danger to the town is. A private contractor will drill 90 holes in and around the borough in an effort to map the fire. "I think the drilling is a waste of money," says Gerrity. "They're only going to find what they already know--it's a waste of time and a waste of money. They should just start digging."
Gerrity is dismissive of the Concerned Citizens. "I have no use for them, no faith in them. They didn't do anything that wouldn't have been done without them. I don't care what they do. I think people are sick of them."
Various governments have burned a lot of money in the Centralia mine fire. Since 1962, $4.5 million has been spent by the county, the state and the federal government in projects to extinguish, trap or simply locate the fire. A 1980 study by the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining (OSM) lists nine separate efforts.
In the early 1960s, everyone agrees, the fire was almost out. A project came up $50,000 short, and no one would pick up the tab. The fire burned on.
Everyone does not agree on where -- or when -- the fire started. The most common view is that it started behind the cemetery, in an old mine entrance that the town was using as a garbage dump.
A second view, held by many of the older miners, and the mayor, is that the fire started in the late 1940s, that it is left over from a mine explosion and fire back when the mines were still active. That fire was flooded, but the old-timers don't think it was put out. They think that it simply surfaced in the trash dump in 1962.
The fire most recently surfaced last year, over the ridge to the east of the town line, ironically, in an area where the townspeople now dump their trash. (Centralia has no trash collection, except that paid for individually from private contractors.)
The cliff face behind the town is still about 1,100 F, although the actual flames have moved on. The rocks are blasted white by the heat, blasted and cracked. The mountain falls away in slices, crumbled by the heat, taking stands of trees with it as it disintegrates. One can walk right up to the cliff face -- as close as the heat will allow. It's like standing in front of a blast furnace. There is no noise, only waves of heat. The air shimmers. No snow ever collects here during the winter. The cliff face, it is agreed, is probably the eastern boundary of the fire. It will burn no farther east. The question is whether it will burn farther north and west, following the coal seams as the miners once did, up under the body of the town.
The current borehole project is supposed to determine that. Most of the town's people see the project as simply a delaying tactic by the government. Jurgill, Girolami and Gerrity all agree on that. They think the government knows good and well where the fire is -- but if the government admits it knows, it will have to do something about the fire.
John Wondoloski has been mayor of Centralia for three years. "After all that drilling," he declares, leaning back in a complaining chair in the deserted borough building, "if they don't know where the fire is, then I'd say . . . well . . ." He comes up short of words. He's certain they know where the fire is.
Wondoloski, short, chunky, bald and red of face and pate, still works a strip mining job in addition to being mayor of Centralia. He gets no pay for being mayor, just $20 a month for expenses. The budget of the borough is $46,000 a year.
Wondoloski doesn't think the fire is under the town. "That has always been my contention. If they started to dig where the fire is at they wouldn't have to come into the town. I don't think the fire's under there." The smoke coming from pipes in the ground of the town, he says, is just from heat rising from the fire, using the old mining tunnels as chimneys.
Wondoloski is not fond of the Concerned Citizens. "Some of their views, I don't agree with. Like suing the federal government a current stratagem under consideration by the group or trying to get rid of the 107 homes on the south part of town." The mayor thinks the Concerned Citizens do what they do because "maybe they want to leave! They just want their homes bought, by the government."
Of the unsuccessful efforts of the government to put out the fire, Wondoloski says, "This is the way federal government works."
Pennsylvania and the United States have pushed the tab for extinguishing the fire back and forth over the years. The 1980 Office of Surface Mining study estimated it would take $85 million to dig the fire out, the only known sure way of extinguishing mine fires. Other options--relocating the town, constructing barriers -- ranged downward in price and effectiveness.
Mine fires are not uncommon in this country. There are currently more than 250 burning, according to OSM officials. Some burn harmlessly, away from population centers; some require attention and money to be kept from threatening towns.
Very little is known about how mine fires travel, how they burn. And very little is known about the best way to extinguish them. Indeed, it is possible that some of the early efforts to put out Centralia's fire only enabled it to burn more fiercely, by giving it access to oxygen.
Right now, the federal government says the Centralia fire is Pennsylvania's problem. The federal government is paying for the current study, Pennsylvania must foot the bill for the action the study indicates. Pennsylvania says that's ridiculous, it can't possibly afford to put out the fire. It has proposed a 25 percent state share, 75 percent federal share financing program.
Helen Womer, 54, is not scared of the fire. She thinks it's overrated. Womer, a teller in Centralia's only bank, is one of the loudest, sharpest critics of the Concerned Citizens, of whom she says, "I don't think they're worth talking about."
Womer believes there is a major conspiracy afoot to get the coal under Centralia, and that is why the fire has been allowed to burn so long, why its danger has been exaggerated. "They're letting the fire burn so they can condemn the community and get the coal! That is their end result."
She thinks the current borehole-drilling project is simply an effort to plumb the richness of Centralia's coal reserves.
The federal government thought the Womer home was dangerous to live in. It was one of the homes the government wanted to buy and destroy last year. The Womers and one other family declined the government's offer. The 27 families who moved last year, she says, "were frightened out."
The Womers didn't move because they didn't feel the fire was a threat to their home. They don't have a meter in their home, although they now live closer to the fire than anyone. They don't let Dennis Wolfe come test for gases. There are no gases, Womer claims.
Womer does not deny the fire is a threat. "I have always thought action needed to be taken. A barrier, an extensive, sophisticated barrier to protect the community, needs to be constructed." But all of the excitement is unnecessary, as is excavating the fire, destroying homes, testing for gases, disrupting Centralia.
Womer is often seen as the opposite end of the spectrum from Joan Girolami, the Concerned Citizens, and that organization's president, Tom Larkin. The Concerned Citizens, she says, was created as a vehicle for Girolami to ride out of town in. "It certainly started out that way," Womer says now. "I don't know what it is now." Of Larkin, who owns no property in the town except a cemetery plot, she says he's involved "for the publicity, for the notoriety. He's been catapulted from obscurity. I'm not talking about Tom because he makes me so mad, his theatrics, for one thing . . ."
But Womer does acknowledge the damage the fire has done to the town. She is wistful about the good old days. "This was once a model community, it was so close-knit, and we had so much fun, we'd have town picnics and everybody would show up." Still, she claims, she "is not at odds with anybody."
Later, she says, "That's the real tragedy of this -- family against family," agreeing with Joan Girolami. "You can always get another house," she adds.
Centralia is an unusual town in more than one respect. It owns the mineral rights beneath it, which is extremely rare. The large, well-known Pennsylvania coal company Pagnotti Enterprises Inc. owns some of the land in the town's southeast corner, over the fire, and much of the land just beyond the town line there, where efforts have been made to put the fire out.
Pagnotti officials deny they want anything but the town safe and the fire out. They also say they have no plans to mine the land in the Centralia area that is theirs, let alone designs on the town itself.
But the conspiracy theory is fairly widespread among Centralians who can't believe that 20 years hasn't been enough time for the government to extinguish the fire. In innuendo, this conspiracy theorizing focuses on Pagnotti. But if the privately held coal giant wanted the town, it could have come in and bought it out house by house for less than $30 million and then stripped the coal out. Pagnotti officials say that has never even been contemplated. They don't know if it would even be profitable.
Tom Larkin, 42, lives in a little home he rents in the north end of the town in which he was born and raised, well away from the fire. Larkin, who once studied to be a Catholic priest, is now a short-order cook at Snyder's, a restaurant in the next town, universally acknowledged as the best eating place around.
Larkin likes elephants (his house has more than 300 miniatures and pictures of elephants), H.P. Lovecraft books and classical music. He uses Latin to make his points.
Despite the fact that the fire does not threaten him directly, he is one of its most vigorous opponents.
"I think that what is happening is that Centralia is slowly being suffocated to death. Little by little, the town is going."
Larkin moved back into town almost three years ago, oblivious to the fire, concerned only with his dying mother. After his mother died, he says, he woke up to the fire. "I started to walk around the town, and I saw steam coming up here, and steam coming up there, pipes in the middle of the street, I thought, jeez, what the hell is going on here?" After Todd fell in the hole, after a long conversation with Joan Girolami, Concerned Citizens was born with Larkin at its head and "putting out the fire" as its purpose.
"And if it's necessary to excavate the fire to put it out," Larkin says now, "excavate! It is the only true way of dealing with a problem of this magnitude. I'm sure part of the town will have to be destroyed, yes."
But Larkin doesn't think the entire town needs to be destroyed. "I think this community can be saved. I want to save the community." Any homes that must be taken to excavate the fire, Larkin thinks, should be relocated on the town's western edge.
The fire has hurt Larkin. "I have relatives in this town who don't talk to me anymore, which hurts, it hurts tremendously."
For 20 years, including his time at the seminary, Larkin was away from Centralia. Now that he's back, the town's reaction to the fire puzzles and disturbs him. "One would think that a crisis situation like this would bring the people together and make the people stand up and be counted, as it were. To speak with one voice and say, 'Look, it's gone on long enough, we want an end to this.' But it has not.
"And I cannot fathom why. I think it's that many people may suffer from what might be called the ostrich syndrome, rather not face the problem, rather ignore the problem and maybe the problem will go away . . .
"The government could have stopped this thing a long time ago, and it didn't. A disaster of this nature shouldn't be orchestrated, it should be prevented."