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Fire in the Hole

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Author Topic: Fire in the Hole  (Read 153 times)
Lisa Wolfe
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« on: June 19, 2009, 12:01:14 am »

Flooding the area with water was rejected: it is nearly impossible to inundate a large underground area, especially one as complex and well drained as Centralia. In any case, water would have had to be pumped in for years to dissipate the fire’s heat. Afinal solution, to dig a pit three-quarters of a mile long and deep as a 45-story building, would have cost $660 million, more than the value of property in town. It, too, was rejected.

Within a few months, the Centralia fire, which began on the town’s outskirts, had spread to its southern edge. At first, this development seemed more curious than calamitous. Kathy Gadinski, then 25, recalls harvesting tomatoes at Christmas from her naturally heated garden. Some folks no longer had to shovel snow. Then things took an ominous turn: residents began passing out in their houses—from carbon monoxide leaking in through their basements. Next, the underground gas tanks at Coddington’s Esso gas station, near St. Ignatius Church, started heating up. Route 61, the main road into town, dropped eight feet, and steam spurted out of cracks in the pavement. Then, in 1981, 12-year-old Todd Domboski was crossing through a resident’s backyard when a hole opened: he slid out of sight into a dense cloud of gases. The boy saved himself by clinging to a tree root until a cousin pulled him out. After that, just about everyone in Centralia accepted the most radical solution of all: let the mine burn. Most residents took the federal buyout and moved to neighboring towns; more than 600 buildings were demolished. “Putting it out is the impossible dream,” says Jones.

In 1992, the town’s remaining buildings were condemned; the state took title to Centralia. Lokitis and other die-hards became squatters, but authorities have not evicted anyone. Most of those who have chosen to remain are elderly, and “that would be very bad publicity,” says Lamar Mervine, Centralia’s flinty, 89-year-old mayor. “They don’t want another Waco here.” (That, he adds, was a joke.) It’s just that he and his wife, Lanna, also 89, like Centralia, even without many neighbors. With much of the demolition zone grassy and still visibly unaffected, they doubt the fire will reach their 15-foot-wide house, now splendidly isolated at 411 South Troutwine Street.
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