Few Remain As 1962 Coal Town Fire Still Burns
February 06, 2010
That changed in the 1970s, when carbon monoxide began entering homes and sickening people. The beginning of the end came in 1981, when a cave-in sucked a 12-year-old boy into a hot, gaseous void, nearly killing him. The town divided into two warring camps, one in favor of relocation and one opposed.
Finally, in 1983, the federal government appropriated $42 million to acquire and demolish every building in Centralia. Nearly everyone participated in the voluntary buyouts; by 1990, Census figures showed only 63 people remaining.
Two years later, Gov. Robert Casey decided to shut the town, saying the fire had become too dangerous. The holdouts fought condemnation, blocking appraisers from entering their homes. The legal process eventually ground to a halt.
Until recently, Lokitis Jr., who works a civilian job with the state police in Harrisburg, had been one of Centralia’s most vocal defenders — star of a 2007 documentary on Centralia. He expressed hope that it could stage a comeback, claiming the fire had gone out or moved away.
State officials say the fire continues to burn uncontrolled and could for hundreds of years, until it runs out of fuel. One of their biggest concerns is the danger to tourists who often cluster around steam vents on unstable ground.
While Lokitis felt he was in no danger, he had little recourse than to move from his late grandfather’s two-story row home on West Park Street when an order to vacate arrived, one of two such notices sent last year.
Now living a few miles away, he tacked a sign on the front porch of the old homestead. “REQUIESCAT IN PACE” — rest in peace, it said. “SORRY POP.”
He couldn’t bear to watch the home get knocked down a few weeks before Christmas. But he couldn’t stay away, either, going back after the wrecking crew had finished its work.
“It was part of my life for all 39 years, that house,” he said. “It was difficult to leave it and difficult to see it demolished.”
Difficult, too, to give up his dream of Centralia’s rebirth.
“I’d always hoped the town would come back and be rebuilt,” Lokitis said, “but I guess that’s never going to happen.”