Note: The following story is based on real events. Because what’s scarier than something that’s actually happened?
The government van cruised down the state parkway past the sign marking the city limits. It continued past a large field of browning crabgrass and sparse trees, and made a turn at an empty intersection marked only by an abandoned and decaying gas station. The van made its way into the town center, or what was left of it, and was unfettered by traffic as it passed the empty buildings and sidewalks that lined the pockmarked and bumpy road.
Eventually the van reached another large and empty field, with only a small forest and some isolated houses visible from the street. The vehicle pulled off the road and onto a shoulder of ancient asphalt that was adjacent to the field. After it was parked, its two occupants climbed out of the van and gazed at the landscape around them.
“Welcome to Centralia,” the driver stated. “Population: Five.”
The other man, the census taker’s partner, squinted at the line of dilapidated stone houses they had just driven past. “Amazing that there’s even that many still here.”
“Used to be much higher,” the driver said, “But this town had a very ugly secret that it tried to keep buried for far too long.”
“Is this where they found the hole the kid fell in?”
“No, that was on the other side of town. It doesn’t concern us, anyway. What happened there happened. We’re just here to find the folks who remain.”
“I’m not sure I want to meet anyone that certifiably insane,” the partner remarked as the two of them started walking down the shoulder of the cracked and crumbling street, heading toward the scattered houses that could be seen in the distance.
FEBRUARY 14, 1981
It was after 10 o’clock on that Saturday morning, and Florence Dumboski was washing dishes after the family breakfast. She was used to hearing commotion around the house on weekends, but rarely did anything interesting happen outside her home. She was therefore surprised when she began to hear vehicles moving and men talking from outside the kitchen window.
“What’s going on?” She wondered, leaning her body over the sink full of suds, plates, pots and pans. She looked out the window in front of her, seeing the usual view of the side yard and the neighbor’s house beyond it. But she could still hear noises coming from down the street that lay in front of the house and went beyond the neighbor’s. Florence squinted to see far away, but was not able to identify the source of the patter.
“Todd,” She called out to her twelve-year-old son, “Do you know of anything that’s going on outside?”
Todd Dumboski entered the kitchen, absent-mindedly tossing a football to himself. “What? I haven’t been outside this morning.”
“Listen. It sounds like there’s something going on down the street. Do you happen to know anything about it?”
Todd stopped tossing the ball and listened quietly. “Uh uh. I have no idea what’s happening out there.”
“Could you go out there and look for me? I’m very busy with the dishes.”
“Sure thing, Mom. Inspector Todd is on the case.” The boy ran out the door of the kitchen and dashed up the side yard to the road. He glanced to his left but was not able to see anything or anybody, though he could hear the voices much clearer now that he was outside. He crossed the quiet street and walked down it past the large and empty field situated on the other side.
The field wasn’t much of a sight in the cold February that most residents of the small Pennsylvania town were well acquainted with. The grass was brown and splotchy, the trees were bare and grim-looking, and the partly cloudy sky gave no interesting color to the landscape. Todd had no interest in his natural surroundings, but one thing did catch his eye. Far out in the field, near a cluster of trees by a ravine, a puff of smoke was rising from the ground.
What is that? He thought as he walked off the road shoulder and stepped onto the edge of the field to get a better look. Staring at the trees in the distance, his eyes were not playing tricks on him. There were in fact thin wisps of smoke coming out of the ground, clearly visible against the dark brown trees in the background.
Todd started running across the field. This was a much more interesting mystery than a bunch of people talking down the road, and required an investigation. Fortunately, the journey was straightforward. The ground was dry, and the desiccated grass crunched under his feet as he ran. The smoke became more easily visible as he neared it, but it gave off no detectable odor. There was no sign of any fire, but he kept going just to be sure.
As he was starting to run out of breath, he finally reached the source of the smoke. Near a small group of trees, there was a patch of ground with sparse grass cover and crusty earth. A thin column of smoke was lofting out of the ground and into the air above, though the surface seemed unaffected. Todd could feel no heat or any sign of a blaze anywhere nearby. The preteen simply remained at the scene, staring at the smoke in puzzlement.
That’s weird… He scratched his head, then turned around and began to walk back across the field to the road. But suddenly he felt a slight rumble underneath his feet. Before he could register what it was, his feet abruptly sank under the earth and he was up to his knees in mud.
“Oh crap! Quicksand!” The boy screamed as his hands hit the ground. He would soon wish to be so fortunate. The fumes were becoming thicker and smellier, and the ground was warming rapidly. Then, a crack splintered in the surface ahead of him. It grew wider by the second, until it opened up into a crevasse that split the ground apart, with Todd in the middle. The earth on either edge of the opening tumbled into the void below, and pulled the boy down with it.
“AAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” Todd tried to cling on to the ground, but it kept collapsing, causing him to slide further down. He could not see the darkness below him because there was now so much smoke it nearly blinded him. The boy was quickly losing his grip on the surface and was not enjoying the impromptu sauna.
“HELLLLPPP!!! SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME!!!!!”
Just as Todd was about to take the plunge into the darkness, a break in the waft of smoke emerged, and he was able to see a small brown protrusion in the wall of the crevasse. Not knowing what it was, he nonetheless latched onto it. Directly above it was a larger, sturdier-looking protrusion, which he grabbed with his other hand. He looked up and could see one of the trees standing directly above him. He realized that what he was holding onto were the tree’s roots.
He held on for dear life, but could not see any other object to grab onto to pull himself out of the still-expanding hole. The smoke rising from the bottom was not relenting, and the heat was becoming very intense. Todd dared to look down into the hole but could not see anything. He frantically felt around for other roots to hold onto or solid parts of the surface to stay on, but found nothing. It did not escape the boy that were the crevasse to expand any further, he would likely be done for. If he didn’t lose his grip and fall to his doom, surely he would expire from all the noxious fumes that surrounded him.
He used his rapidly fading energy to scream as loud as his lungs would allow. “HEEELLLLPPPP!!!! HELP ME, PLEASE!!!!” No one answered. “HELLLPPPP!!!!! HELLPPPPP!!!! HELLLLPPPPP!!!!!!”
“Todd?” He heard a familiar voice yell from somewhere above. “Todd? Are you down there?”
“Who is that? Help meeeee!!!!!”
“It’s Eric! Your cousin! Are you down in that hole?”
“YES!!! I just fell in! I don’t know how it happened – the ground just opened up below me and I fell!”
Eric rushed around the edge of the now-cavernous hole and looked down it in horror. He could only see a few feet below the surface and his visibility was very limited due to the smoke. His cousin continued to scream, and Eric followed the yells until he was able to spot Todd through the infernal clouds. The smell was now overpowering, and the fourteen-year-old found it hard to avoid vomiting; it was worse than the smelliest car he had ever encountered in his life. But he knew his cousin was in mortal danger, and so he reached out his hand as far as he could into the hole.
“Grab my hand! I’ll pull you up!”
“But you’ll fall in too!”
“Wait! Let me brace myself on the tree!” Eric ran over to the tree that stood above Todd’s position, and wrapped his arm around one of its low, thick branches. He reached back down into the hole. “Grab onto my hand! Hurry, there isn’t much time! This hole may still be growing!”
Todd pulled himself up as high as he could while still leaving one hand holding on to the tree roots, trying to climb slightly up the wall in order to reach his cousin’s hand. His foot slipped off the wall, and he tried again, his strength draining with every minute. His free hand reached high up enough for him to feel his tendons stretching with pain, but he was still short of Eric’s reach.
“I can’t go any lower than this!” Eric yelled to him. “You gotta pull yourself up higher! You can do it!”
Starting to feel drained and faint, Todd nonetheless kept reaching upward. As he moved closer to Eric’s hand, the ground took another tumble downward, and his hand fell down again. Mustering up enough energy for one more reach, he pulled his hand up, jerked his body upward as much as he could, and stretched his limb out toward Eric’s.
“Almost there buddy! You can do it!”
One more jerk upward and Todd was able to throw his hand into Eric’s. The rescuer pulled his cousin up as fast as he could as Todd let go of the tree root, and the two boys collapsed onto each other, onto the surface just inches away from the chasm.
They both breathed and heaved heavily for several moments, with Todd blinking and trying to regain his senses. Eric looked over and saw that there was still smoke wafting out of the hole, and earth from the edges was still falling into it.
“Let’s get out of here! Now!” The boys got up to their feet and took off, running across the field toward the road until they almost collapsed again from exhaustion. They were within sight of Todd’s house, and his mother ran across the street in a panic.
“Todd! Oh my God! Are you alright?”
“I think he’s gonna be okay,” Eric answered her. “Physically, anyway. Mentally – God only knows.” He and Florence picked up the exhausted boy and took him to the house and into his room before Florence dialed for the family doctor.
FEBRUARY 24, 1981
“Ten days ago,” Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh intoned into a microphone, “This town nearly experienced an unimaginable tragedy. On February 14, a young man almost lost his life as a sinkhole opened underneath him in a field not more than a mile from here. He thankfully was pulled to safety in a remarkable act of heroism by his cousin. However, while this disaster was thankfully avoided, it is not the end of trouble for the town of Centralia.”
Thornburgh nodded toward U.S. Representative Jim Nelligan, who stood in front of the microphone and began speaking to the crowd gathered in the town’s small auditorium.
“The governor and I were very close to the scene,” Nelligan explained to the worried audience members. “On that day, we were both right down the street from the field. The two of us were in Centralia that day on a mission to assess the area. We both are back here today to give you our assessment of the situation, even as the investigation into the sinkhole continues. Folks unfortunately, the situation is quite grim.”
The representative pointed to a chart situated on an easel on the stage next to him. “As you all know, Centralia sits on a large deposit of coal, and for over a hundred years many coal mines have operated in this town. Most of them have since closed, and many of the old mine shafts were turned into landfills. However, sometime within the last twenty or so years, a fire ignited at one of the coal seams well beneath the surface. We do not yet know the cause of the fire, but it could have been linked to efforts to clear trash from the old strip mines. The landfills did not contain the blaze, and the coal fire has entered the old mines and continued to sear underground.
“The location of the sinkhole where Todd Domboski fell last week was where one of the old mineshafts was, its integrity collapsed by the fumes and heat of the coal fires. That is why there was so much smoke and intense heat observed at the site of the ground collapse. The hole that opened up in the earth is over a hundred fifty feet deep. State officials have conducted some tests and found that there were lethal amounts of carbon monoxide coming out of the hole. Had Todd been trapped in there for even a few minutes longer, he most likely would have asphyxiated.”
The crowd murmured worryingly, and Representative Nelligan swallowed nervously, for he knew they would not enjoy hearing what was coming next. “Sadly folks, as of now there is no known method of putting out the coal fires. As long as they are burning under the surface, this entire town is in serious danger.”
Governor Thornburgh stepped back in front of the microphone, hoping to calm the now-panicking assembly. “Folks, folks, we should add, we don’t believe that anyone in this town is in any imminent danger. We urge you all to stay calm while we explain what will happen next.”
“What do you mean ‘no one is in danger?’” One of the audience members yelled out. “A kid almost died last week!”
“Yeah!” Another person screamed, “Why weren’t town officials monitoring the coal fires? Why were they plugging up the strip mines without making sure a blaze could be contained?!”
“Those coal companies don’t give a damn about any of us!” Another town resident roared from the back, to the approval of many others in the audience.
“I understand your frustration,” the governor pleaded, “But now is the time for action, not for blame. We are going to seek federal disaster relief immediately. And the Commonwealth will provide whatever financial assistance is necessary to help the residents of this town relocate to safer homes.”
A sudden hush fell on the crowd. The people of Centralia looked at each other nervously, realizing their fate as soon-to-be refugees.
“Know this, Centralia,” Governor Thornburgh informed them, “We are with you through this. Whatever happened in the past, must not be allowed to destroy our future.”
Neither he nor Representative Nelligan had any further words, and so the crowd slowly milled out of the auditorium, the silence broken only by sniffles, tears and angry grumbles as they headed back outside.
“The government made buyout offers to the town’s residents for the value of their properties, and nearly all of them moved away within a few years,” the census taker told his partner as they walked down the street. “In 1992, the governor condemned the area using eminent domain. Most of the few people that remained were evicted from their homes by 2010. The two of us together nearly match the number of those still here.”
“What about the coal fire? Is it still burning?” His partner took a gander at the few signs of civilization that remained in the area. They consisted only of the occasional old house with a car parked outside, and crumbling fences that served as remnants of the old community.
“The fire could burn on for centuries longer,” the census taker said. “This town is our Chernobyl. Only its skeleton exists now. Nothing but abandoned buildings, dying roads and fumes from the underground mistake. And it’s gonna stay that way for ages to come. Once these last residents pass away, it will be a completely uninhabited area.”
The partner simply shook his head. “Guess it’s true what they say. The longer you try to keep the past buried, the likelier it is that it will eventually find its way to the surface.” The two men looked with sorrow at the thin plume of smoke lofting from the dried-up field as they continued down the crumbling road.