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Feet to the Fire, Centralia's Old-Timers Are in No Hurry

Pennsylvania: A coal vein has blazed 40 years. The town's condemned. There's little here, but as one of the few folks left says, 'It never crossed my mind to leave.'

June 09, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CENTRALIA, Pa. — There is a spreading oak tree in the square as you pull into town. Six metal chairs are at its base, arranged in a cluster, as though friends had gathered there recently and suddenly hurried off. In the trunk of the tree is nailed a red, wooden heart bearing the words: "We love Centralia."

The chairs remained empty through the long, cold winter and the gray, rainy spring. But Lamar Mervine, the 86-year-old mayor, says that once summer returns, in July or so, folks will haul two benches into the square and, on warm evenings, you'll find the whole town sitting by the oak, chatting and remembering the past of a mountain coal town that has no future.

For Centralia and its 15 mostly elderly residents, the future vanished when the town--or more precisely, the underground coal vein on which it sits--started burning, apparently when someone tossed smoldering trash into an open mine shaft.

That was 40 years ago, and the fire still burns. It has baked the earth so that snow melts on impact, and filled the air with smoke and gas-laden steam that creeps up through fissures in the ground.

The state, which monitors the underground temperatures (they've been known to reach 1,200 degrees) and the gaseous emissions, in the early 1990s declared Centralia too dangerous to inhabit. It condemned the town and established eminent domain. One by one, the 19 bars disappeared, the high school and American Legion were torn down, the 545 homes and businesses were demolished. Almost all the 1,100 residents are gone too, after abandoning attempts in the courts to save Centralia and accepting a federal buyout and relocation offer.

Mervine and his die-hard friends, who sit under the oak and live as virtual squatters in attractive homes now owned by the government, say they have stayed for a simple reason: Centralia is home. And a splendid home it is, they say, if sometimes a bit lonely.

"Sure you miss having neighbors," said Mervine, who became mayor when the previous one left town in 1993. "There was people like the Shemonskis a few doors away.

"I'd like to have them back. But I was born here and I intend to die here. It never crossed my mind to leave.

"From day one, when the government didn't put the fire out--which they could have done for a few thousand dollars in those days--I figured they wanted us out of Centralia so they could get the coal we're sitting on. People say it's a vein with 40 million tons.

"So I suspect they're just waiting for us to die off. But dangerous here? Not on your life. You can go over and ask Joe Moyers about that."

Moyers' house is the last one left standing on Locust Street. He is 71, an 18-year veteran of the mines and a lifelong veteran of Centralia's vicissitudes. On this day, he was in his yard waiting for some of the 125 homing pigeons he keeps as a hobby to return from a training flight to a nearby town. His two dogs, Barker and Penny, took turns dozing and watching the sky for sight of them.

"The fire's no danger far as I'm concerned," he said. "If the town's not safe, how do you explain why my lawn's so nice and green? Or why my pigeons are healthy? I can tell you a lot of the people who left wish they hadn't. I don't know exactly who ... but I know they miss a nice, quiet place like this. Anyone would."

No deaths or illnesses have been linked to the fire, according to the state, but two sink holes--each about 150 feet deep--did open up in the ground some years back. (An 11-year-old boy who fell into one of them survived by clinging to roots near the top until his cousin rescued him.) And a section of Route 61 just outside Centralia, 115 miles northwest of Philadelphia, gave way in 1993, requiring the state to build a bypass.

The state has always maintained that the cost of extinguishing the fire would have been millions of dollars, not thousands; a study done 20 years ago put the figure at $600 million and said the project would require digging a series of trenches right through the heart of town.

As Centralia's landlord, Pennsylvania could force the eviction of the remaining citizens. But the thought of state troopers pulling elderly residents on fixed incomes and miners pensions from the last 12 homes unnerves everyone, and plans are underway for a new series of negotiated buyouts. "I'm optimistic we can reach a fair conclusion through the board review process," said George Michak, chief counsel for the state department of community and economic development.

The day that Moyers was awaiting the return of his homing pigeons, there was the rumble of a Bobcat bulldozer in the Russian Orthodox cemetery on the hill above his house. It belonged to Skip Shemonski, who was raised on Trout Wine Street, near Mervine's house, before making his way to the outskirts of Philadelphia and becoming a builder-developer.

Over the course of many weekend trips to Centralia, he had landscaped the cemetery for free and now was preparing a plot for his recently deceased cousin and tending to graves that bore the names of Michael and Mary Shemonski, his parents. Plumes of smoke rose from the scorched earth just outside the fence surrounding the burial grounds.

"Snow falls outside the cemetery and it melts," he said. "Inside the cemetery, it just lays on the ground, white and fresh. Something's going on. Someone is telling us this is sacred ground. Someone is reminding us there is something special in Centralia--not like the city where you get in the fast lane and it's just the pursuit of the almighty dollar."

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