On Valentine's Day, 1981, eleven-year-old Todd Domboski was walking through a field in Centralia, Pannsylvania, when a 150-foot-deep hole suddenly opened beneath his feet. Noxious fumes crept out as the boy fell in. He only survived by clinging to some newly exposed tree roots until his cousin ran over and pulled him to safety. What was happening here ...and why?
(Image credit: Flickr user Scott Drzyzga)
Eastern Pennsylvania in anthracite coal country. Back at the turn of the 20th century, miners were digging nearly 300 millions tons of coal per year from the region, leaving behind a vast subterranean network of abandoned mine shafts. In May 1962, while incinerating garbage in an old strip mine pit outside of Centralia, one of the many exposed coal seams ignited. The fire followed the seam down into the maze of abandoned mines and began to spread. And it kept spreading -and burning- for years.
Mine fires in coal country are actually not all that uncommon. There are currently as many as 45 of them burning in Pennsylvania alone. Unfortunately, there's no good way to put them out. But that doesn't stop people from trying.
(Image credit: Flicker user Cole Young)
* The most effective method to extinguish such a fire s to strip mine around the entire perimeter of the blaze. That's an expensive -and in populated areas, impractical- proposition. Essentially, it means digging an enormous trench, deep enough to get underneath the fires, which are often more than 500 feet below the ground.
* An easier (but not much easier) method is to bore holes down into the old mine shafts, and then pour in tons of wet concrete to make plugs. Then more holes are drilled and flame-supressing foam is pumped into the areas between the plugs. It, too, is a very expensive project, and it doesn't always succeed.
The cheapest way to deal with a mine fire by far is to keep an eye on it and hope it burns itself out. (One fire near Lehigh, Pennsylvania, burned from 1850 until the 1930s.) After a 1969 effort to dig out the Centralia fire proved both costly and unsuccessful, they admitted defeat and let the fire take its course. By 1980, the size of the underground blaze was estimated at 350 acres, and large clouds of noxious smoke were billowing out of the ground all over town. The ground temperature under a local gas station was recorded at nearly 1,000ºF. Residents of the once-thriving mountain town began to wonder if Centralia was a safe place to live.
When the boy fell in the hole and almost died, the fire beneath Centralia became a national news story. The sinkhole -cause by an effect known as subsidence, which occurs when mine shafts collapse, possibly because the support beams are on fire- put the town's 1,600 residents in a fix. Their homes were suddenly worthless. They couldn't sell them and move someplace safer -no one in their right mind would buy them.
(Image credit: Flicker user Cole Young)
The townsfolk were given a choice: a $660-million digging project that might not work, or let the government buy their homes. They voted 345 to 200 in favor of the buyout, and an exodus soon began. By 1991, $42 million had been spent buying out more than 540 Centralia homes and businesses.
If you were to visit Centralia today, the first thing you'd notice is that there are more streets than buildings. At first glance, it would seem that someone decided to build a town, but only got as far as paving the roads. If you looked a bit closer, however, you'd notice the remnants of house foundations. Looking still closer, you'd see smoke still seeping out of the ground.
(Image credit: Flicker user Proper Pictures)
As of 2005, twelve die-hard Centralians reportedly continue to live in the smoldering ghost town. The number has dwindled since a decade ago, when nearly fifty holdouts still called it home. Experts estimate that it will take 250 years for the fire to burn itself out.
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