The fire mine fire that would eventually consume Centralia, Pa., started in 1962 in a garbage dump, ignited a coal seam, and slowly but inexorably spread. Smoke began to pour from spreading fissures and occasionally a sinkhole opened up and swallowed a child. By the mid-1980s, Centralia was a national story as the federal government began a $42 million effort to relocate its citizens and raze the town (the last few holdouts, who were in essence squatting in their old homes, fled only recently).
I was a young and pretty green reporter, but was breaking some good stories and was chosen to replace a very seasoned, very good reporter who had covered the story thus far. He wasn’t happy about it and rightfully so, but I was thrilled to get the story, especially as it was beginning to break nationally. Milestones – the first house torn down, a visit from some dignitary, an anniversary – were the best because the national media came to town and I got to pit myself against national reporters – everybody’s story would be in print the next day for all to see. I think I held my own.
Tourists would come to town and ask the locals ‘Where’s the fire?’ And the locals would say, “Why, it’s right under your feet, can’t you feel it? The flames are licking right at the underside of the sidewalk!” Ah, the tourists would indeed feel it and then there were laughs over shots and beers in the local bar as the locals watched them mince lightly away.
One day, two Nigerian diplomats, Yusufu Mahammadu Bamalli and Garba Abbas, visiting Harrisburg on some sort of exchange program, journeyed to Centralia. Phodog Bill Hughes and I were on hand. Crowds gathered — and what a contrast as white, ethnic working stiffs followed our Muslim guests, regal and seemingly weightless swaddled in their satin robes and kufis, as they practically levitated up Main Street towards St. Ignatius Catholic Church.
In the whole town, only the land under the church was spared from flame. Yusufu asked Eddie Politis, a local wag, why that was. The coal companies, Eddie explained, were terrible to workers who worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages. A radical group, the Molly Maguires, took it upon themselves to sabotage the mines and assassinate particularly cruel mine owners and their minions. The Mollies were Catholic. They attended church. The priest knew exactly who they were. So, in his homily one Sunday he declared that if the Mollies did not cease their activities the town would burn – all except for the church. The Mollies did not cease. The town burned. The church didn’t. Pure hoodoo, of course.
But Yusufu was thunderstruck! “Oh, no!” he cried. “These people should have said, ‘Priest, please reconsider your position. Only those who did the bad thing should have been cursed.’”
We moved on to a smoky gulch where corrugated pipes plunged deep into the earth vented smoke. Yusufu obliged the mayor by touching stones heated by the fire and then wandered into the vent field. He climbed upon a rock, like a prophet, and at that instant a pillar of smoke was exhaled and arose and enveloped him. We held our collective breath as the smoke grew denser and the pillar grew higher and Yusufu vanished entirely. Then a breeze blew it all away and there he was, arms folded, resplendent, regal, impressed, deeply satisfied by his brief communion with the fire below the earth.
Turning to the crowd of Catholic micks and hoopies who came out for his visit, Yusufu nodded sagely and declared, “It is good to see the work of Allah.”
Photo Credit: Bill Hughes