About the Author
I grew up in Holland, Michigan, a very Dutch town of 25,000 on the Lake Michigan coast that celebrates an annual festival called Tulip Time. In 1975, after graduating from Hope College in Holland with a degree in political science, I decided to pursue my dream of being a newspaper reporter. Just like Woodward and Bernstein, I would have said at the time, they being the heroes of every young reporter in 1975. But it was a recession year, and newspaper jobs were scarce, especially for someone straight out of college. After failing to find one in Michigan or Wisconsin, I drove east in my white Volkswagen Beetle and began applying at small daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. I saw a lot of classic newsrooms, and the clattering of the typewriters was music to my ears. But no one offered me a job.
I had been on the road a few weeks, generally camping in state parks or staying in cheap motels or with the few relatives we had out East. Despite my frugal ways, I was getting low on funds and my dad was making noises about how maybe I should come back to Michigan and get a factory job, if only temporarily. My factory jobs during college, the last of which was bottling swimming pool chlorine, had left me with a visceral dislike of the shop floor, but also with an appreciation for the people who had to be there to support their families. Fortunately, soon afterward I stopped in at the Hazleton Standard-Speaker. The editor didn’t have a job for me, but he told me there had been three retirements in Shamokin, Pa., at The News-Item.
Both the Hazleton and Shamokin papers were in northeastern Pennsylvania, an area known as the Anthracite Region after the hard coal that had been mined there for over a century. Tom Brennan, the executive editor of The News-Item, gave me my first newspaper job. The salary was in the high four-figures, and he told me to get a haircut (it grew back), but I was thrilled. I was a real, honest-to-God general assignment reporter, covering municipal meetings, crime and fires.
To a Midwestern boy from a small town, Shamokin was an exotic place. The town was very ethnically diverse there were Poles, Italians, Irish, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Welsh, English, and Germans in the mix, though hardly any blacks. Shamokin was a raucous place that loved to drink and party, unlike my own, overly abstemious hometown. Politics were highly personal. It was a young reporter’s dream come true, a great news town. Looming hundreds of feet over Shamokin was a gigantic culm bank of waste coal and rock from the local mines. It was on fire and steam rose from it on cool, wet days, a constant reminder of the town’s economic heritage and the continuing, unavoidable legacy of coal mining.
I came to the Centralia mine fire story by accident, but also because I had a reporter’s instinct for a good story. On Nov. 1, 1976, I was asked to cover the monthly meeting of Centralia Borough Council. Jake Betz, the regular Centralia reporter, who is now executive editor of The News-Item, had something else going on. All I had ever heard about Centralia, which is 12 miles from Shamokin, was that its council meetings were long and boring, even more so than most. No one ever mentioned the mine fire. Not once.
There wasn’t much of an audience that night, just me and an older middle-aged couple, as I recall. The man, Tony Gaughan, was thin, wore thick glasses, and looked perpetually tired. Even after I got to know him, he seemed more than a little paranoid. At the end of the meeting, Gaughen rose to address the council, talking in a rising, angry voice about a fire that was burning underground near his house, and how if the federal government didn’t do something soon it would move under the entire town.
I perked right up. A fire burning underground, under homes? But Gaughan wasn’t a nut, the council members were nodding and expressing concern. I always had an amateur’s interest in geology, mainly because my parents, Paul and Olga DeKok, were rock collectors and took the whole family on fossil collecting trips. In 1965, we had stopped to see the burning coal veins at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. So the concept of an underground coal fire wasn’t completely new to me. But a fire burning under a town, under people’s homes, certainly was. Nothing like that ever happened in Michigan.
Neither The New-Item nor any other paper had done a story on the mine fire for years, so Tom Brennan gave me permission to pursue it. During the next month, I interviewed Tony and Mary Lou Gaughan and started investigating why the state and federal government weren’t committed to doing anything about the mine fire in Centralia. There was buck-passing galore and I sensed a lot of plain old bureaucratic boredom with the issue. The fire, I learned, had been burning since 1962; at the time, anyone who asked was told that spontaneous combustion had started the fire. I believed it for years; the truth was a tightly held secret in the town.
I stayed with the mine fire story for the next eight years, writing repeatedly about how the fire was progressing, the people who were being harmed, and whether the federal government was finally going to do something about it. Many of my stories were picked up by Associated Press or UPI and transmitted to a wider national audience. These, in turn, attracted other reporters from around the world to do their own stories. I believe it was the good work of journalists, combined with activism from many of the citizens, that finally put enough pressure on Congress to relocate the people of Centralia. It was too late to save the town itself.
I began work on my Centralia book, Unseen Danger, in the fall of 1980, ironically at a time when I thought the Centralia mine fire was petering out as a story. Only three months later, young Todd Domboski dropped into a steaming subsidence in Centralia, and the final and most terrible part of the mine fire story began. Fortunately, it ended with deliverance. My first Centralia book, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and Centralia Mine Fire, published by University of Pennsylvania Press in late 1986, had no direct impact on the debate, but became the most comprehensive account of what happened and why. In 2009, I updated my book to take the story up to the present day. Globe Pequot Press published the revised edition as Fire Underground: The Continuing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire.