Professor's presentation takes closer look at Centralia disaster


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SCHUYKLILL HAVEN - A presentation at Penn State Schuylkill took a closer look at the Centralia mine fire and how it compares with other major mine fires in the region.

Harold Aurand, an assistant professor of American studies and history, presented "The Research Project That Found Me: Comparative Anthracite Mine Fires," as part of the Faculty Research Seminar Series on February 20.

Aurand said that the people of Centralia were using an abandoned strip mine outside town as a garbage dump and the garbage would catch fire - sometimes on purpose because residents would burn it off to get rid of it. In 1962, the dump caught fire, got into the underground mine and slowly burned toward the town.

"It's a disaster and it's been very famous," Aurand said. "It's been the basis for movies like 'Silent Hill.' This is a story everybody is kind of interested in."

The other mine fires that Aurand talked about included the Laurel Run Mine Fire near Wilkes-Barre that started in 1914 when a miner forgot to turn off his light after work on a Friday. While the fire was contained for years, it eventually broke loose in 1962.

Aurand also discussed the Carbondale Mine Fire outside Scranton that started to be an issue in the 1950s.

Aurand said there are two types of disasters - natural and man-made technological disasters.

Natural disasters are random, occur quickly, are easy to understand and pull a community together, while the other type occur in certain locations over a long period of time, are hard to understand and split the communities.

The different types of disasters, natural versus man-made, cause people to act differently, although people didn't react the same across the different mine fires.

Aurand said that the Centralia mine fire split the community into two groups - the first thought residents needed to evacuate or they would all die, and the second believed the government could and should put the fire out.

"Families were split apart," Aurand said. "Town meetings turned into brawls with yelling and shouting. Tires were slashed. One guy had a Molotov cocktail tossed through his window."

He said that compared with the other mine fires, Centralia's was worse due to the geographic location of the fire.

At Laurel Run, the fire stopped at certain locations and existed within a rectangle, while the Centralia fire started to burn in different directions and at a different pace.

"You can usually track a mine fire through mine maps but Centralia also saw bootleg mining," Aurand said.

One resident in the town, the man who Aurand said had a Molotov cocktail tossed through his window, had a problem with gas from the underground fire coming into his house. He then discovered a previous owner had been mining his own coal from the basement.

Also according to Aurand, the government considered Centralia to be less of an urgent issue, unlike Laurel Run, which was contained due to it being near Interstate 81 because the interstate would have had to be relocated.

"Governments don't like to spend money," Aurand said.

Also, Luzerne County, where Laurel Run is located, and Lackawanna County both had experience containing mine fires. But Columbia County, where Centralia is located, is mostly rural farmland and was not used to mine fires and didn't know how to contain it.

"Today, hardly anyone has experience working in mines and we don't know anything about mine fires, so we panic," he said.

Therefore, mine fires are now contained quickly and Aurand doesn't think another mine fire like Centralia will happen again.

At the end of the talk, Ryan Smith, 31, of Saint Clair, a student at Penn State Schuylkill, asked Aurand if there really was a conspiracy with either the government or coal companies getting the people of Centralia to relocate in order to get the mineral rights to the coal under their properties.

"I view that as a rumor," he said. "There isn't much of a market for anthracite right now, so to sneak in and go through such an elaborate process, I just don't think it would be worth it."

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