An American Mining Tragedy

By Joan Quigley

Random House. 244 pp. $25.95.

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Reviewed by Roger K. Miller

Nearly everybody fiddled while Centralia burned. Even its residents fiddled while Centralia burned.

Just before Memorial Day 1962, a fire broke out in the small town of Centralia in southern Pennsylvania's Columbia County. The fire began in a landfill sitting atop an abandoned 1930s strip-mining pit, then moved down an underground coal vein and into the defunct Centralia Colliery.

When the fire reached underground tunnels, it swept through millions of tons of anthracite (hard coal), releasing deadly methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The mine fire burned for years, defying, Joan Quigley explains, government's halfhearted "efforts to bring it under control by digging it out, starving it of oxygen, and pumping noncombustible powder into the workings." At one time, it was judged not just the worst of 12 mine fires in the commonwealth, but of all 300 in the country.

Centralians tended to ignore the fire, putting up with illnesses, nausea, headaches, sudden sinkholes, snow melting in temperatures well below freezing, steam rising from the ground in all seasons - and the nearly constant rotten-egg smell of sulfur. Centralia was not an affluent community - $9,000 was the median annual income - and its 1,000 residents were occupied just trying to scrape together a living.

Then, on Valentine's Day 1981, seventh grader Todd Domboski, poking around one of the smoking vents that dotted the area, started sinking into the earth. He slid deeper and deeper into mud made hot and sticky by emissions from the mine fire, and was rescued only as his chin began to slip below the ground.

At that point, controversies began boiling that led to the near-total abandonment of Centralia. But it was not abandoned easily, quickly or peacefully.

And that is really what Quigley's excellent study, The Day the Earth Caved In, is about. It takes up several fascinating topics - among them the history of 19th-century mining, the thermodynamics of mine fires, the politics of coal. But her central question is: "Why did so many residents want to stay in Centralia, even as toxic fumes and cave-ins beset part of the community they loved?"

The answer is complex, but Quigley, a former Miami Herald reporter and granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Centralia miners, unravels it through seven years of research and interviews. It involves individual, family and town histories. If it were strictly about the fire and its politics - i.e., dodging responsibility for paying to douse it - her book could be one-third shorter but half as interesting.

The battle drew national attention. It came down to those who wanted the government, state or federal, to provide funds for relocating families against those who knew relocation meant the death of the town and preferred continued efforts to put out the fire or even claimed the fire was not a great problem.

Protests took place amid fear of confronting government that might retaliate by auditing taxes or laying off state employees. People were chary of rending the social fabric by alienating neighbors or family members who took the other side. They resented outside interference, even while seeking outside intervention to solve the problem. A deep tribal conservatism pressured dissenting family members to conform.

The fractures in the community are not always easy to follow, nor are the motivations that led to them, because they can seem, to the outside observer, illogical and irrational. Why, for instance, remove a carbon-monoxide monitor from your home as a gesture of where you stand on the issue when it potentially endangers your family's health or even life?

Though Quigley does not say so, it sounds in part like the knee-jerk anti-environmentalist impulse: If those nutty tree-huggers are for it, I'm against it. For some anti-relocationists, no proof - not simply of danger, but of a fire - was strong enough.

So, for many reasons, Centralians were reluctant to move: memories; social and family connections; pride in place; respect for family, stability, tradition. Yet when secret voting took place, true feelings came out: Unfettered by self- or peer-censorship, residents voted overwhelmingly for relocation.

The author tells her tale extremely well (although the timing of events is not always clear), and is mostly neutral on the disputes. If she has a villain, it is Ronald Reagan's clueless interior secretary, James Watt, whose determination to make Centralia solely Pennsylvania's problem held up distribution of available funds.

Ultimately, the legal and political mess Watt created gave way to a $42 million relocation package in 1983. Razing of buildings and dispersal of residents followed soon thereafter.

As for the fire, it still burns in Centralia, now a town of about a dozen residents. The fire could last decades, or a century. No one knows.