Jan. 24, 2014: The Scranton Times-Tribune writes in an editorial that Northeastern Pennsylvania has “had enough of” mine fires, offers up some interesting facts, and mentions Centralia.
BBC reporter Matt Danzico’s video story on Centralia is up on the Internet today. You can see it here. He does a great job balancing my commentary against Tom Hynoski’s, even making the latter, not known for his, uh, calm demeanor, sound pretty reasonable. Another BBC reporter, Jaime Gonzalez, rolls into town this Sunday and Monday to do a story for the BBC’s Latin America service.
Tom Larkin memorial service July 28 at 10:30 a.m.
The family of Tom Larkin, the late Centralia mine fire activist who died March 27, will hold a memorial Mass for him this Saturday, July 28, at 10:30 a.m. in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, 47 S. Market St., Mount Carmel. Father Edward Lavelle will be the celebrant. His cremains will be buried in St. Ignatius Cemetery, Centralia, at the convenience of the family.
Tom was president of Concerned Citizens Action Group Against the Centralia Mine Fire, normally shortened to “Concerned Citizens,” from its inception in March 1981 until its demise in late 1982 amid death threats and the fire bombing of a prominent member’s store. Throughout, he displayed his wit and compassion while striving to bring help to his friends and neighbors.
On TV tomorrow
You can hear me talk about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Centralia mine fire tomorrow, May 23, around 4:15 p.m. on PA Live!, a talk show hosted by Dave Kuharchik on WBRE-28, the NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The mine fire marks its 50th year on Sunday, May 27. Channel 28 is carried on cable systems throughout northeast and north central Pennsylvania. They did a lot of Centralia coverage back in the day.
What Centralia looks like today
I came across this video on YouTube. I don’t know the name of the director other than “Richards Media,” but Centralia,Pennsylvania: The Fire Down Below, provides an accurate picture of what Centralia looks like today. The director uses still photos, not moving images, to tell the story, plus some occasional on-screen text with an evocative musical background.
Centralia mine fire 50th anniversary on May 27
Sunday, May 27, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Centralia mine fire. I don’t know of any particular observances planned. Perhaps someone will still come up with something. That day (also a Sunday) in 1962 was when five firemen hired by Centralia Borough Council went to the town landfill, set it on fire, let it burn, and then hosed it down with water from a tanker. They did it to clean up the dump prior to Memorial Day, when many visitors were expected at the adjoining Odd Fellows Cemetery. Unfortunately, there were opening in the pit that led down into the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. That was how the Centralia mine fire started. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Goodbye to a friend
Tom Larkin’s wake was held this afternoon at Grace Tavern in Philadelphia. He was a much-loved regular there, in the best sense of the word. Think of some of the regulars in the old Cheers television series and you’ll understand what I mean. Tom was Cliff, he was Norm, he was Coach, kind of all rolled into one. Sometimes he ate at Grace, where he loved the Cajun green beans. More often, I’m told, he would sit at the end of the bar and sip a Martini and talk about the world as he knew it in his gentle, rolling voice.
I took the train down from Harrisburg and walked to Grace from 30th Street Station, a pleasant, 15-minute stroll on a day of perfect weather. The two women who organized the wake, Daina Mednis and Lulu Maynard, had a sign outside the bar announcing the wake of Tom Larkin, “friend and neighbor.” That he was, and he was good at both. They recognized me from my author website when I walked in. I had been there once before, to re-interview Tom when I was preparing the revised edition of my Centralia mine fire book, which was published as Fire Underground. James Fernandez, a co-owner of Grace Tavern, welcomed me.
Everyone had stories about Tom. They knew about his critical work leading the Concerned Citizens group, which fought for relocation of Centralia residents threatened by the now 50-year-old underground mine fire. They didn’t realize the abuse and threats he received from those in the town who opposed relocation. How could anyone threaten Tom? they wondered. He never brought it up. They knew he had studied to be a Catholic priest but did not become one because of his disagreements with the church on some issues. Yet if you were casting a movie and needed someone to play a kindly Irish priest, Tom is the one you would pick.
It was sad that no one from his blood family attended the wake. A scheduling conflict, I was told. But in many ways, the family that was most important to him, that drove him to medical appointments, that raised money for him after he was burned in a fire a couple of years ago, was here. He came back just once after recovered from his burns, choosing to live in Ashland, near Centralia, for his final days. But he called down on occasion to the tavern to check on his old friends.
And today, they sang “Danny Boy” for him, spilled whiskey on the floor, and toasted the man they loved. Tom, you did good.
Tom Larkin memorial service April 15
A memorial service–an Irish wake, really–will be held for Tom this Sunday, April 15, from 2-5 p.m. at Grace’s Tavern on Grays Ferry Ave. in Philadelphia. The full address and a nice obituary is at this link. I hope to be there.
Tom Larkin dies
Many of you have contacted me about the death of Tom Larkin, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I am traveling inMichigan at a place with no Internet service and spotty AT&T Wireless service. I’m writing this from a coffeeshop.
Tom was a great and gentle man. I got to know him in 1981 when he became president of Concerned CItizens Action Group Against the Centralia Mine Fire. He and Joan Girolami led the effort to get the Federal government to do something about the mine fire, which in 1981 had become a serious threat to life. Children were becoming ill from the gases, and Todd Domboski, then 12, had dropped into a steaming subsidence. He barely escaped with his life.
Tom was an intelligent, well-spoken man with the best interests of his community at heart. He worked hard to make elected officials pay attention to what was happening in Centralia,no easy task. Yet he rarely uttered a cross word despite being the target of much vitriol from Centralia residents who believed the mine fire to be a perncious myth and opposed any relocation. The hate eentually became too much to bear and he stepped down as president of Concerned Citizens. But his heart and soul was still with nit neighbors who were struggling with this environmental disaster.
One of the last times I saw Tom was in early 2009, when I had begun work on a revised edition of my book, Unseen Danger. We met in Grace’s Tavern near his apartment in Philadelphia and he introduced me to their famous blackened green beans. We ate and drank and talked about old times. I will miss him.
P.S. – I am told there will be a memorial service for Tom after Easter, date and location to be announced. He was cremated and his ashes will be interred next to his parents’ graves in St. Ignatius Cemetery in Centralia. The diocese allows people who already have lots in the cemetery to use them, but from what I have been told does not sell new ones.
New Centralia play opens in Brooklyn, runs to end of March
Centralia: A Nice Place to Live, a play based on the lives of nine fictional Centralia residents still living in their mine fire-stricken town, opened March 2 in the Brooklyn Lyceum in Brooklyn, N.Y. It will be performed on Friday nights in March by Ugly Rhino Productions. A Saturday, March 24 performance has been addedThe play was produced by Bryce Norbitz and written and directed by Nicole Rosner. You can read an interview with her about the play in the Brooklyn Paper. Admission is $25, which includes six Centralia-themed cocktails. Directions to the theater available at the first link above.
Review: Centralia: A Nice Place To Live
I went to see this off-off-Broadway play tonight and was glad I did. I’m always dubious about outside interpretations of Centralia. Too often, the people are portrayed as Appalachian hicks, which they weren’t, but Ugly Rhino Productions managed to avoid that here. Performed in the Brooklyn Lyceum, a rundown and battered former bathhouse, the play addresses the lives of the nine remaining residents of Centralia, where a mine fire has burned beneath the town for 50 years. No one should go to this play expecting photo-realism–the actors are all young, for example, even though the remaining Centralians are quite old, but most of the themes and emotions about love of community and loss of home ring true.
The production is actually six mini-plays, each performed in a ‘house’ where the actors first welcome the ‘tourists’ inside but then, after talking about their lives, order them to leave in emotions ranging from anger to sadness. Their dialogue is sprinkled with local references and real historical characters, including Ashland, Frackville, Kulpmont (but strangely, not Mount Carmel),May’s Drive-In of Ashland, New Centralia (Mount Carmel Twp.’s DenMar Gardens), Alexander Rea, and Todd Domboski. I found Aaron of “Aaron and Jed,” played by Dylan Kammerer, reminiscent of John Lokitis, Jr., the last relatively young person to live in Centralia, while Jed, played by Douglas Sharf, reminded me of John Koschoff, a borough council president in the early 1980s. “Miss Trish,” played by Sarah Hartley, made me think in some ways of Fran McKeefery. The mini-play I liked best, “Karen and Amy,” starring Manini Gupta and Anna Perczak, weaves in the tragic story of the Mayernicks, a married couple in Centralia who died in a murder-suicide in 1987. He wanted to relocate from Centralia and she didn’t. That’s what it came down to.
Nicole Rosner directed “Nevin Porter” and “The Reas,” Bryce Norbitz directed “Miss Trish and “Karen and Amy,” and Danny Sharron directed “Aaron and Jed” and “Evelyn.”
If you stick around until 11 p.m., you get one more wrenching scene plus a video montage from Centralia and recorded voices of some of the people who opposed relocation, including Mary Lou Gaughan, although she eventually did leave.
This is not a perfect play, but it is a promising one. With more work and refinements–I think they should make it about all of Centralia, not just the nine remaining diehards–it could become another Spoon River Anthology. Producer Bryce Norbitz told me afterward that their intention is to bring it around again. Centralia: A Nice Place to Live, runs Friday nights in March plus on Saturday, March 24. Tickets are $25 plus a service charge. You get six drink tickets with your admission, although I quit after three.
Will his Centralia visit be in the film?
Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods, about the author’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail with his friend, Stephen Katz, appears to be heading to the big screen with Robert Redford in the lead role and Nick Nolte as Katz (a pseudonym for the author’s high school friend, Matthew Angerer). Bryson takes a side trip to Centralia in the book, even stopping at the Mount Carmel Public Library to look at their bulging clip file on Centralia, which includes many Shamokin News-Item articles by me. Will the Centralia sidetrip make it into the movie? Thinking like a screenwriter, my guess is no, but perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Barry Levinson (Rain Man) is supposedly going to direct.
Centralia mine fire part of History Channel show March 23 at 9 p.m.
Journey to the Core of the Earth, a two-hour voyage of the imagination from the Earth’s surface to its core, will be shown on the History Channel on Wednesday, March 23, at 9 p.m. Eastern. I was interviewed last June for the Centralia mine fire segment, which begins about 10 minutes into the show, as were former Centralia residents Bob Gadinski and Catharene Garula. Producer of the show is Chris Lent of Wall to Wall Media, Ltd., in London.
Book signing Sept. 18 at Borders, Harrisburg
I will be signing copies of Fire Underground at the Borders bookstore at 5125 Jonestown Road, Harrisburg, Pa., a.k.a., the “East Shore Borders,” on Saturday, Sept. 18, beginning at 2 p.m. I imagine I’ll be there until 4 p.m. Thanks to Borders and WITF for making Fire Underground their Pick of the Month for September.
Good things don’t always come to those who wait
Word out from Bloomsburg, Pa., that a Columbia County jury has awarded the remaining Centralia residents far less for their homes than they thought warranted. According to a story on Sept. 11, 2010, in the Press-Enterprise of Bloomsburg, Helen Hynoski asked for $90,000 but will receive $45,000, just $6,500 more than the original appraisal in 1993. Steve Hynoski thought his two houses, garage, and a piece of land with a trailer should bring $172,000, but the jury cut that to $80,000. Harold Mervine thought the home of his late father, former Mayor Lamar Mervine, should command $75,000. The appraisal was $35,000 and the jury awarded $40,000, according to the newspaper. Carl Womer, widower of Helen Womer, settled out-of-court with Columbia County Redevelopment Authority and will receive $82,000 for his house, the only remaining house in the mine fire impact zone. The agreement allows him to live out his life in the house. The question is whether the state will require the other Centralians to move, as it has when it forcibly acquired the homes of fellow diehards John Lokitis, Jr., and John Comarnisky.
Yes, the mine fire is still burning
News from the state Department of Environmental Protection on Friday that I want to pass along: the Centralia mine fire is still burning under the borough of Centralia.
You may have read claims from some of the handful of people who still live in Centralia, the diehards of the diehards, that the mine fire has moved out of Centralia, or has burned out completely, or never was–the claim varies on a day-to-day basis. That claim or a variation of it is part of ongoing litigation by the remaining residents against the state seeking to stop efforts to relocate them out of Centralia.
DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun said on Friday, July 2, that DEP and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining did gas and temperature readings in the Centralia monitoring boreholes in June–those which haven’t been filled with concrete by vandals–and found temperatures of 400-500 degrees Fahrenheit within Centralia and toxic gases such as carbon monoxide being vented randomly by the almost 50-year-old underground fire.
“The data is useful to prove that there is still a fire burning beneath the borough,” Rathbun wrote to me in an e-mail. A full report is expected in about a month.
I had also asked Rathbun for DEP’s response to observations I made in Centralia recently, namely that someone was dumping fill atop the field next to St. Ignatius Cemetery where the fire burns in an apparent effort to stop the mine fire steam from coming out of the ground and so make it less of a tourist attraction (tourists are there nearly every day, from all over the country). It was pretty obvious what was going on. In addition, I observed that piles of dirt had been placed to block access to a road that goes out into the mine fire area, and that a storm sewer opening near the Womer house that often vented steam had been backfilled nearly to the top.
Rathbun said DEP did not pay for or authorize the dumping of fill, and that at least one person in the agency had heard that a local contractor and Centralia resident was trying to “hide” the fire. It appears doubtful anything will be done about it, he said, citing a lack of resources and questionable illegality. The problem that I see is that it could force gases into the Womer house, which is the last house in the main mine fire impact zone. The history of the mine fire shows that blocking the escape of the deadly gases at one location can force them elsewhere.
A good book republished
I finally got my review copy this week of the new Penn State Press edition of Slow Burn, by Renee Jacobs, a collection of black-and-white photographs of and interviews with people who lived in Centralia during the last years, from 1983-85. Her book was originally published by University of Pennsylvania Press, which published my original Centralia book, Unseen Danger, at the same time, December 1986. Slow Burn had been out of print for maybe 12 years when Renee returned to photography in 2007 after a career in environmental and labor law in California.
She arrived in Centralia in May 1983 and rented the house near St. Ignatius Church that had been the home of Leon and Catharene Jurgill and their two children. The Jurgills had moved out to get their children away from the mine fire gases and later divorced. I ran into her frequently while reporting stories for the Shamokin News-Item and taking pictures in Centralia. It was a time when the mine fire was at its scary and dramatic peak, with voluminous clouds of steam coming from virtually any opening in the ground. I once happened to park my Ford Escort in front of her house and wandered off to look for photographs. A rainstorm began and I remembered I had left my car windows open. I ran back but Renee was already there, rolling them up.
Her photographs have acquired the poignancy of age, since nearly a quarter century has passed since they were taken. I attended the funeral for one of her subjects, Charlie Gasperetti, not long ago. His children, who were elementary age in the photos, are young adults now. Chrissie Kogut, who also appears in some of my photographs (as do the Gasperetti children), is over 40, a mom, and a Facebook friend of mine. Renee had incredible access to people in Centralia, a tribute to her skills as a photographer and human being, capturing them at moments both happy and sad.
My favorite photo in the book has always been the cover photo, which shows Brownie Troop 175 marching past the borehole and vent pipe that stood between John Coddington’s gas station and Tony Andrade’s house. The tree in the center of the photo is now dead, possibly because someone nailed signs into it, one of which simply says “Fire” and points to the west, away from the home of Carl Womer that can also be seen in the photo. It captures the tragedy of Centralia so completely: the mine fire gases, the children who suffered, and the missing homes are all part of this image.
The interviews have also grown in value over time. They are oral histories in the Studs Terkel tradition, with no presence of the interviewer. If you want to know what people in Centralia were thinking, unfiltered by journalists like me, you could do worse than read these.
I don’t see Renee much anymore. My family and I were in California a few years ago and stayed for a few days in a hotel on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Renee came down from her Laurel Canyon home and met us for coffee at a sidewalk cafe. At the time, she was still in her lawyer life and didn’t know what she would do about Slow Burn. I’m glad she made the effort to bring it back into print and glad Penn State Press agreed to publish a high-quality new edition.
Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania
Available from Amazon.com and other booksellers
Lawyer for Centralia diehards suspended
The Patriot-News in Harrisburg reported this morning that Andrew J. Ostrowski, a suburban Harrisburg lawyer who represents the last hold-outs in Centralia, has been suspended from the practice of law for a year for violations of rules for lawyers in an unrelated case.
Ostrowski was quoted at length in a February 9 story by Leon Bogdan in the Press-Enterprise of Bloomsburg. I wish I could link to it, but I can’t because of the newspaper’s paywall. The story was about a court hearing scheduled next month to settle what the state Department of Community and Economic Development will pay for the properties of the remaining Centralia residents.
Ostrowski contends that the Centralia mine fire is no longer a threat to the remaining residents and they should be allowed to stay. He won’t be allowed to introduce that argument at the eminent domain hearing, however, but said in the story he hopes to “find a court somewhere” that will hear their plea to remain in Centralia.
His clients in the eminent domain appeal include Stephen and Bonnie Hynoski, who own a house, a house trailer, and two vacant lots in Centralia, Helen Hynoski, and her children Walter and Christine Hynoski, who own a home on East Centre Street, Carl Womer and his daughter Kathy, who own a house on Wood Street in the heart of the mine fire impact zone, and Harold Mervine, administrator of the estate of his parents, Lamar and Lana Mervine, who owned a house on Troutwine Street.
DCED, which took over Centralia relocation duties from the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, requires Centralia residents to move once their eminent domain appeals are resolved. That has led to the departure of John Comarnisky, John Lokitis, Jr., and Helen Tanis in the past year. The state declared eminent domain in 1992 but then basically lost its nerve and allowed those Centralia residents who didn’t want to leave their burning town to live tax and rent free in their homes. They couldn’t touch the money set aside to buy the homes until they moved out, however.
Agence France-Presse story on Centralia
Agence France-Presse, the French counterpart to Associated Press, did their own update on Centralia three days after the AP story moved.
Associated Press story on Centralia
Michael Rubinkam, a reporter for Associated Press, wrote a story on the last days of Centralia that moved nationally on Friday, Feb. 5. I was quoted in it and Fire Underground was mentioned. My sales on Amazon.com went through the roof that day. I went from a sales ranking of 83,000th up to 256th and was the #1 “Mover and Shaker” on Amazon.com that day. Thanks to all who purchased my book!
Penn State University Press to republish “Slow Burn”
Long out of print, photographer Renee Jacobs’ excellent book of photographs of the people of Centralia in the early 1980s will be brought back into print by Penn State University Press in February 2010. “Slow Burn” was originally published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 1986 as a sort-of companion volume to my first Centralia book, Unseen Danger, which came out at the same time from them. You can order her book on the press website now. I’ll post more information about the new edition when I hear back from Penn State.
Former Centralia mayor Lamar Mervine dies at age 93
Lamar Mervine, who achieved fame late in life as the media-friendly mayor of Centralia, died on New Year’s Day. He is believed to have resided in a nursing home for at least the past year. His wife, Lanna, died in 2008.
Mervine was appointed mayor around 1993 to replace Mayor Anne Marie Devine, who had accepted relocation and moved with her family to Elysburg. He stayed in the post until around 2007, always residing in the house at 411 Troutwine Street where he was born in 1916. He and about a dozen other diehards were the only inhabitants of the town from about 1995 onward. They firmly believe–and Mervine would tell you–that the mine fire was no threat to anybody. Families who once lived above the fire and eagerly accepted relocation to save themselves and their children from the deadly mine fire gases disagree.
He was quoted in many news stories about the Centralia mine fire in the print and broadcast media over the years. In 2001, he appeared as himself in a Jon Stewart/Daily Show piece on Centralia that captured the essential absurdity of living in a town above a mine fire. Mervine was the same crotchety old man to everyone who interviewed him, but rarely told any reporter to get off his lawn.
With his death, it appears likely his longtime home will be demolished. Ten persons remain in Centralia. Their homes are owned by the state, which took them under eminent domain in 1992. But the former owners were allowed to continue living in them tax and rent free until 2009, when the Rendell Administration changed the policy. Now, if Columbia County Court of Common Pleas has made a final ruling on what the state will pay for the property, the owners are required to leave.
John Lokitis, Jr., and John Comarnitsky found new homes outside of Centralia last summer as a result of the new policy. Lokitis’ home was demolished last month.
Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia vandalized over Christmas weekend
First United Methodist Church in Mount Carmel is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for vandalism to the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia, which the church administers and maintains.
Vandals toppled more than 60 headstones over Christmas weekend, shattering several of them. The cemetery was created by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a Protestant fraternal organization, in the 1860s, but in recent decades had been under the control of the Methodist church in Centralia and then the one in Mount Carmel.
The Centralia mine fire started on the weekend before Memorial Day in 1962 when members of the borough fire company were paid to clean up the town landfill by setting it on fire. The landfill was located in an old strip mine pit 50 feet from the east side of the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call the Pennsylvania State Police in Bloomsburg, 570-387-4701.
Big news on the relocation front
Those of you who follow the Centralia message boards already know this, but the state has begun moving the last dozen or so diehards out of Centralia. I confirmed this about two months ago with Steve Fishman, general counsel of the Department of Community and Economic Development, when I was writing the revised and updated version of Unseen Danger (now to be titled Fire Underground) that will be out Sept. 1 from Globe Pequot Press. My new book includes the old one but adds three new chapters and 50 color photos and takes the story up to the present time. I asked him if everyone was going to be moved out, and he said yes. If you recall, the Casey Administration invoked eminent domain against the handful of remaining Centralia residents in 1992. Some then left, but about a dozen stayed, living rent free and tax free in their homes but unable to touch the money paid for them until they actually left. Casey didn’t want to force anyone out, and neither did Tom Ridge. Ed Rendell has agreed to be the bad guy. John Lokitis, Jr., star of the documentary, The Town That Was, and who according to Schuylkill County records has purchased a home near Ashland, told the Cent-Cony newsgroup that he has to be gone by Labor Day. Fishman told me the eviction timetable would depend on resolution of court cases filed by the residents challenging the eminent domain prices paid for their homes.
Centralia song out on CD
Pennsylvania folk singer Jay Smar’s song about the Centralia mine fire, “The Fires of Centralia,” is finally available on CD. The song, which Landingville, Pa., resident Smar wrote, is on his new disk, “Heritage and Coal Mining Songs of Northeast Pennsylvania.” This is a well-made, professional album with high-quality musicianship. It should appeal to anyone who likes traditional American music. “The Fires of Centralia” is a mournful lament for, well, a town that was, and is closely based on my book. It has a catchy tune, and any artist who can work both DenMar Gardens and the AML Fund into a song deserves credit! But seriously, this is good stuff. You can catch Jay this coming weekend, April 25 at 7 p.m. at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Pottsville, Pa. He’ll have copies of his CD for sale.
To find out what (mostly) former Centralia residents are thinking and talking about these days, check out Ritamarie Long’s website. Make your way down the page through the ads and click on Message Board to get to, well, the message board. Very lively and informative at times.
Read the Sunday New York Times review of Unseen Danger from Jan. 4, 1987.
Another very good discussion group about Centralia and Conyngham Twp. can be found here. You must sign up to use it, but that’s easy to do.