Embers of hope remain for those left in Pa. town

Centralia coal mine fire approaches 40th year

April 22, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CENTRALIA, Pa. - If first impressions are always right, nothing can redeem Centralia.

It's hard to tell that you've even reached this place because nearly all of the houses - and the school and the post office and the playground and the churches and just about everything else that was ever here - are gone.

Right across the street from the boarded-up motorcycle repair shop known as the Speed Spot, though, a big red wooden heart is nailed to a tree. "We Love Centralia" is inscribed, probably to prove a point to all those who left.

The guy who put it up has since moved away, too, but that doesn't negate the sentiment. The people in this borough - there are only 15 - do love it. That's why they have stayed.

It will be 40 years next month that a fire has been burning in the coal mines underneath Centralia, which sits at the intersection of two state highways about 115 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Most of the town's 1,100 residents left after the government began a voluntary buyout and relocation program in 1983.

Most, but not all.

"I wouldn't have gone for a million dollars," said Joe Moyer, the lone resident on Locust Avenue, which doubles as Route 61. "I'm not going to leave."

Moyer, 71, lives in a three-bedroom rowhouse with his two dogs, Barker and Penny, and the 125 homing pigeons he raises and trains out back for racing (the season opened yesterday). He has been in Centralia most of his life and plans to die here.

After working in the mines for 25 years, he has a simple enough reason for staying put. He doesn't think there's any danger, even with the fire burning beneath the hillside, emitting what the state says are all sorts of gases, including colorless, odorless and potentially deadly carbon monoxide.

His view, however unscientific, is this: If there were any danger, do you think there would be grass growing in the back yard and trees all around?

No one knows for sure how Centralia's mine fire started in May 1962. One theory is that some people torched garbage in a stripping pit, and the fire spread to the coal beds underground. But people in the area say it could have been extinguished long before the federal government stepped in with $42 million to move the town's residents elsewhere, saying they were no longer safe.

Twenty years ago, the cost of putting the fire out was estimated at $660 million; the state says that number has only grown.

These days, you don't see clouds of smoke and flames when you pull into town. In an area atop the hill near two of Centralia's three cemeteries - the dead far outnumber the living here - what looks like smoke pours out of the ground. Most of it is steam, making it feel like you're in a big humidifier - except for the foul smell of sulfur.

Nearly all of the vegetation in the immediate area is dead, and the rocks are warm to the touch (some are even hot). If a foot of snow falls here, nothing much accumulates. State officials say the surface temperature in some spots is 1,000 degrees, more than enough to melt the soles off a pair of tennis shoes.

"It's a spectacle, but it really doesn't bother me," said John Lokitis, who at 32 is one of Centralia's younger residents.

Lokitis lives on West Park Street in a rowhouse grouped with two others, so it looks like he has neighbors.

He doesn't.

The elderly couple who used to live next door passed away - first her, then him - more than a decade ago, then their son moved out in 1993. Bernie, from two doors down, died a few years back, too, sitting peacefully in his living room chair. (Moyer, who functions unofficially as the town's constable mostly because he cruises the streets in his blue 1988 Ford pickup, was the one who found him.)

It's a little lonely for Lokitis since his grandfather, who had been his housemate, died in January. But Centralia has served as the Lokitis family homestead since the early 1900s. His parents live at the other end of the same street, on East Park, which isn't officially Centralia, but is as close as you can get.

"I'm sure the end's going to come sooner or later, we're down to so few people," said Lokitis, who keeps five cars and drives 120 miles roundtrip every day to Harrisburg for his civilian job with the state police. "I try not to think about it too much."

Technically, Lokitis and his fellow Centralians are squatters in their own homes. The state invoked its power of eminent domain about 10 years ago, seizing all the properties and the land on which they sit. The coal below, which is owned by the borough, is worth a fortune.

"If they got tough, I guess they could put us out at any time," said Lamar Mervine, 86, the borough's mayor.

People in the area think state officials are reluctant to evict elderly people such as Mervine and his wife, Lanna, 85, because it would look like bullying, and there would be political repercussions. They think the state is essentially waiting for the town to die.

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