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Steam is rising over the bare ground, freezing the grass in thin layers of brittle ice.
Smoke wafts are growing between small cracks in the bedrock and I can feel the heat under my feet when I climb up the rubble to get a better view of the place.
The road is dark, sharp and slippery, winding through naked trees and into the wintry Pennsylvanian mist.
Thick layers of clouds are concealing the hills, black rocks and silver birches lingering in the morning’s dim blue haze.
In spite of this, Centralia was doing relatively well. Ed Fuller is a seventy-four-year-old technician recently retired from the mining industry. “You should try the French toast,” Fuller suggests. It’s just trees and empty roads.” Ed Fuller is a man of few words. “Nobody acted on it until the year after,” Ed continues. You can guess what happened next.” Fuller pauses and looks at me, his eyes piercing mine like he wants to make sure I fully understand the implications of what he’s telling me. Sometimes I’d go up the hilltop to pick huckleberries with my younger sister…My father was a miner and we didn’t see him much, so families often helped us with our chores. Everyone supported each other.” Fuller greets a man watching us from his porch, his hands in his pockets and his gray hair flying in the wind.
I follow his advice and we quickly start eating, the windows fogging up as the room fills with regular customers – ladies with walkers, white-haired men in gym slacks, old couples sharing breakfast together. Like abandoned places in the West, with the gold rush and the river dams and whatnot. He gets straight to the point, a habit he acquired during his years in the Army. My mother was growing vegetables in the garden — potatoes, cabbage and such.” “How did everything happen? “Firefighters knew they wouldn’t be able to contain the fire so they asked the DMMI [Department of Mines and Mineral Industries] for help. People had already started moving out, jobs were scarce, don’t you know. “Do you know how much they ended up spending for the relocation of everyone after the town was evacuated? “ million.” We finish our plates, leave money on the table and walk outside. “Before the fire, it was a quaint place,” Fuller replies, smiling. “The hardest part is having nothing left to help me remember.
This was the first real casualty from the fire, come to think of it.” Then Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole.I stop the car at the corner of Locust Avenue and South Street, near the Saint Ignatius Cemetery, steps from the landfill where it all started.I walk to the end of the street in the damp and cold air. Sulfurous, it comes from the bowels of the earth – the pungent smell of burning coal.Some, like Australia’s Burning Mountain, are thought to have been burning for 6,000 years. But in the end, it probably all came down to one simple thing: The Borough Council didn’t want the town to stink for a Memorial Day ceremony.” Even though many theories were brought up throughout the years to explain the disaster, the Department of Environmental Protection today officially admits the most likely cause was the willful lighting of the fire by local authorities. “The dump had been nasty for a while and needed a good cleaning, so the Council hired firemen to set it on fire.Coal consumption was already in decline when Centralia’s underground fire started back in 1962. Of course, dump fires were illegal in Pennsylvania and no one would ever agree to having anything to do with it, but it was how it went back then. Nothing was working, even after flushing and dousing the place several times.