The descendant of Centralia, Penn., miners, former Miami Herald reporter Quigley reveals the moral complexities and political machinations surrounding the underground fires that virtually destroyed this small Pennsylvania town.
She begins in 1981, when a schoolboy slipped into a Centralia sinkhole and was nearly killed by the underground heat and toxic fumes. The narrative then retreats to Memorial Day 1962, when a blaze that began at the town dump moved underground to ignite the underlying seams of coal. The ensuing decades brought ineffectual remedies, illness, public outcry, political shape-shifting and finger-pointing. Locals emerged as heroes, heretics, Cassandras and curmudgeons. Villains appeared, too—mostly, in the author’s view, Reagan-era functionaries trying to reconcile their political philosophy (government is bad) with Centralia’s poisonous and fiery realities. Quigley records Gov. Richard Thornburgh’s highly emotional 1981 visit and blasts feckless Interior Secretary James Watt repeatedly. The media both helped and hurt. People magazine wanted—and got—a photograph of a local man frying eggs over one of the vents; Nightline swooped into town in the early 1980s; but then the press went home and forgot about it all. Quigley conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with residents and read alpine stacks of government reports, newspapers and magazines as part of her massive research effort. She sadly records the split in the community between those who wanted the government to pay for relocation and those who intended to stay no matter what. Ultimately, the town voted for relocation, the federal government provided some funds and most of the principals in the story moved on. But not all: About a dozen resolute folk remain, while tongues of fire continue to lick below.
First-rate research and journalism combine to tell a sad, often infuriating tale.