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Hidden fire chokes last life from US ghost town

by Staff Writers
Centralia, Pennsylvania (AFP) Feb 8, 2010
Parked in the middle of Centralia is perhaps the world's most useless fire truck.

The shiny, lime-green machine waits in a municipal building, ready to go. But the fire killing this Pennsylvania town is underground and nothing except time -- maybe a century or two -- will put it out.

That is the bizarre fate of Centralia, where a vast, subterranean coal fire ignited in an accident almost 50 years ago, gradually turning the settlement, about two hours drive from Philadelphia, into a ghost town.

Of the original population of around 1,000, less than a dozen people remain, refusing to obey government orders to leave their homes.

Fading signs still mark Plum Street, or Apple, or Grape. There are telephone poles, street lamps, and graveyards -- four of them.

But there are almost no homes. Bare grass lines the crumbling sidewalks. Sometimes a few steps ending in thin air betray where a house stood before being torn down.

"I just don't know if there's such a thing as Centralia anymore," says Rich Polyniak, an employee with a local water company that continues to maintain the barely used infrastructure.

The fire smolders underground, eating its way through one of many coal seams riddling the surrounding hills, a longtime mining area.

Although the flames are never seen, they are felt.

Sulfuric smoke puffs up near a cemetery overlooking the town and on a freezing winter day patches of ground there are coffee-cup warm.

A little further, down a barricaded four-lane stretch of the old Highway 61, smoke pours from an enormous, crocodile-shaped crack in the tarmac.

Graffiti scrawled over the hardtop completes the end-of-the-world atmosphere.

"Man can U make anything that nature can't destroy," someone has written.

Surviving snippets of life in Centralia can seem as strange as the wider destruction.

Next to the immaculate fire engine, its doors emblazoned "Centralia Fire Co No 1," stands a police station, unmanned during a weekday visit. "Keep Centralia on the map," says a torn sticker on the door.

Outside one of the few surviving houses a boulder-sized lump of coal serves as base for a flagstaff. A miniature human skull sits underneath.

Outsiders -- particularly prying journalists -- are not especially welcome.

"If my mother knew I was talking to you, she'd shoot me," a man tells journalists at his door. "She's 83."

Another man, with a hearse and a snowplow parked in his driveway, simply shoos reporters away.

Small mistake, big consequences


Legend has it that a 19th century Catholic priest cursed Centralia, saying, "One day this town will be erased from the face of the Earth."

The true culprit was likely more prosaic: a burning garbage dump in May 1962 that scorched through to the coal bed.

Attempts were made to stop the fire, including trench digging, but flames migrated through old coal mine networks and the borders of the blaze were never contained.

Experts say it could take a century, maybe far more, for the coal in the hill to burn out.

The dangers became apparent only gradually after the accident. Carbon monoxide levels rose. The highway cracked. In 1981, a boy narrowly avoided being swallowed by a sudden opening in the ground.

Then in the 1980s, Congress allotted 42 million dollars to buy out residents and a decade later Pennsylvania's authorities claimed eminent domain on all buildings, effectively expelling remaining residents.

That hasn't stopped a few diehards from clinging to what's left.

"I lived here for 50 years," one man said in a brief conversation before closing his front door. "I don't like changing address."

Anne Marie Callahan Devine, mayor of Centralia from 1986 to 1993, says locals feel abandoned by the government.

Centralia was a close-knit place where the original Irish immigrant population was supplemented with Ukrainians and Poles and where intermarriage and large families were common.

"The government found it easier and cheaper to put the people out, rather than the fire," Devine said in a telephone interview.

"They estimate it will burn itself out anywhere between 100 and 300 years. That's a sad situation. And what's more disturbing is they never felt the people of Centralia were worth it."

In the end, coal drives fate in this hard-scrabble region.

While a coal fire chokes the last life from Centralia, a huge strip mining operation is underway on a ridge just down the road, filling the sky with black dust.

The coal here is anthracite -- an especially pure, fierce-burning type.

"There's coal right under the bushes," said one Centralia resident, who like the rest refused to give his name. Pride and bitterness filled his voice.

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