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Few Remain As 1962 Coal Town Fire Still Burns

Few Remain As 1962 Coal Town Fire Still Burns

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Associated Press

February 06, 2010

CENTRALIA, Pa. – Standing before the wreckage of his bulldozed home, John Lokitis Jr. felt sick to his stomach, certain that a terrible mistake had been made.

He’d fought for years to stay in the house. It was one of the few left standing in the moonscape of Centralia, a once-proud coal town whose population fled an underground mine fire that began in 1962 and continues to burn.

But the state had ordered Lokitis to vacate, leaving the fourth-generation Centralian little choice but to say goodbye — to the house, and to what’s left of the town he loved.

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“I never had any desire to move,” said Lokitis, 39. “It was my home.”

After years of delay, state officials are now trying to complete the demolition of Centralia, a borough in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania that all but ceased to exist in the 1980s after the mine fire spread beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.

More than 1,000 people moved out, and 500 structures were razed under a $42 million federal relocation program.

But dozens of holdouts, Lokitis included, refused to go — even after their houses were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s. They said the fire posed little danger to their part of town, accused government officials and mining companies of a plot to grab the mineral rights and vowed to stay put. State and local officials had little stomach to oust the diehards, who squatted tax- and rent-free in houses they no longer owned.

Steve Fishman, attorney for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said “benign neglect” on the part of state and local officials allowed the residents to stay for so long.

No more.

Fishman told The Associated Press that the state is moving as quickly as possible to take possession of the remaining homes and get them knocked down.

“Everyone agreed that we needed to move this along,” he said.

In 2006, there were 16 properties left standing. A year ago, the town was down to 11. Now there are five houses occupied with fewer than a dozen holdouts.

Centralia appears to be entering its final days.