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.Mining operators were struggling to keep profits up, fearing a looming economic crash and slowly downsizing their labor force. The reason, you see, is that the dump was sitting on top of an old coal mine, and the fire had somehow spread to it.” Outside, a fine rain has begun falling from the low rolling clouds. There was a farmer’s market she dragged me at every Sunday after the mass at Saint Ignatius Church.
You couldn’t have made her stay in Centralia for the world. The smell alone made her sick.” Fuller’s parents, however, were among those who opted to stay in Centralia.
“My wife didn’t understand my parents for staying there,” he says.
Despite the growth of natural gas and renewable power, coal has endured, still accounting for thirty-nine percent of national electricity production and representing one of the largest employment sources in Pennsylvania, with 49,100 jobs and more than 0 million netted in tax revenue last year – even while the industry had to comply with ever-stricter regulations promoting clean energy.
Pennsylvania is also the state that is most plagued by mine fires, with at least thirty-eight recorded cases.
Discarded tires and metal parts are mixed with cinder blocks and charred branches, making for an eerie mood in the silent morning. I soon head back east to what was once Centralia’s main avenue, taking a look at the house of the town’s last mayor, Carl Womer, who died in May 2014.
I lift a small rock from the ground and it’s so hot I have to drop it. The house still stands on a recessed side street, but with its deed held by the state since it was taken by eminent domain in 1992, the property is bound to be destroyed in the near future.
Domboski was a twelve-year-old boy living on Wood Street, not far from the cemetery. Domboksi found himself crawling and pushing and yelling as he fell deeper into the 150-foot hole, clouds of foul-smelling steam spraying from below, the mud collapsing even further under him and the roaring sound of flames rising to his ears.
As he was running toward a group of officials talking near the closed gas station, the boy’s attention was drawn by a wisp of smoke coming from a small hole at the feet of an ash tree. “The fire had weakened an old mine shaft structure and made the ground collapse where the kid was standing,” says Fuller.
“This caught attention from television and newspapers and forced the governor to finally act on it,” says Fuller. We were all pissed because nobody was giving a damn.
“He came with a lousy buyout proposal to relocate the town elsewhere and offered owners as little as ,000 for their houses. “My wife Jodi and I had already purchased our home here in Ashland.
I think of the lost history and forgotten memories as I walk by a long-dead tree, a sign reading FIRE nailed to its bark, pointing at nowhere in particular, as if the FIRE had engulfed the whole land and the world along with it, leaving nothing behind but ashes.