Real ghost town that inspired new horror film.
The Mirror (London, England); 4/28/2006
Byline: RYAN PARRY in Centralia, Pennsylvania
SMOKE billows from vents in the ground and toxic gas seeps into every corner, leaving a horrible stench.
From behind a weathered gravestone hobbles the hunched figure of 90-year-old Lamar Mervine.
Pausing to smell the air as it chokes the back of my throat, he looks around the pot-holed graveyard and across the ruins of the town. He issues a hoarse chuckle and says in a rasping voice: "Centralia is the only place where you get buried and then cremated at the same time."
It looks like the set of a horror movie - and the town in Pennsylvania was the eerie inspiration for the new supernatural movie chiller Silent Hill.
The film stars Sean Bean as a dad searching for his wife Radha Mitchell and their missing child in an accursed, deserted town. But the 10 remaining residents of Centralia must live with real horror every day.
Once 1,100 people called this place home, drawn to the town for its thriving coalmining industry. But one day in 1964 an accident deep beneath the town sparked a fire that quickly spread through the mine's underground tunnels.
The flames were so furious that nothing could be done to stop it, and 42 years later the fire is still raging under the streets. Temperatures have reached 1,000C, forcing the local petrol station to close. Tens of millions of tons of coal have been burned and experts say the fire cannot be put out.
The town was evacuated in the early 80s, except for a few hardy souls who refuse to leave. They live watching trees die around them and smoke billowing from the hillsides. Smoke can be seen coming from an abandoned portion of State Route 61, which was closed in the 90s after several large cracks appeared. The highway is blocked off by a mound of earth and a warning sign that reads "Mine fire". Another sign reads "Public Alert: Area subject to mine subsidence and toxic gas emissions".
One large crack tears up the centre of the road like the backdrop to a earthquake disaster movie. The whole landscape is scarred beyond recognition.
Where there were houses, restaurants, churches and schools there are just burning, simmering pits. A grid of streets without names, without homes. Steps lead to a front door that is no longer there. Ironically, three of the town's cemeteries survive.
FORMER miner Lamar is the town's mayor and has been dubbed "Old King Coal" as he tries to keep his tiny community together.
His home stands alone on a once-busy road and he spends long nights in a place he knows is doomed.
He takes us to a cemetery overlooking the town where smoke rises eerily above the tombstones, and points to a patch of grass. "Saint Ignatius church once stood over there, and a furniture store just there," he says. "Then we had an ice-cream shop over that way, and a convent on the hill."
All that's left is a handful of homes scattered about like an old man's last few teeth.
Lamar, who was born and bred in the town, insists he and wife Lanna, 89, will never move. He says: "They kept offering me money to leave, but I won't. This is my home. I was born here and I will die here. I'm not leaving. There's just 10 of us left now - it's only the old-timers who stayed." They stay despite horrifying sinkholes that appear in the landscape, threatening to swallow anything in the vicinity.
In 1981 12-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a hole that suddenly opened beneath his feet. He was saved after a relative pulled him out of the pit - estimated to be hundreds of feet deep. Suddenly Centralia was news and the evacuation began.
There are stories that the town is haunted. Visitors tell of strange sightings, odd sounds. Some say they felt they were being watched. Others reckon Centralia is the gateway to hell. Imaginations can run wild.
But Lamar says: "I'm not afraid. I've heard the stories and I can see the smoke and fires from my house, but they don't scare me. That fire has been burning for 40 years now and it hasn't got us yet."
It was started by careless workmen after some rubbish caught fire on a dump. It quickly spread to a nearby vein of coal. Lamar says the blaze could have been put out if the authorities had acted quickly. "In the first month they could have put that fire out for pounds 2,000 or pounds 3,000, but they did not want to spend the money," he says. "Now look at what it has cost them - hundreds of millions.
"They have paid relocation packages and spent a fortune on trying to figure out how to put it out."
One of the few bonuses of living in Centralia is the zero crime rate.
"We haven't had a crime here for years," says Lamar. "Everyone knows each other and the criminals certainly don't want to come here. We have quite a few tourists stop by. They can never quite believe their eyes with all the smoke coming up from the ground."
Not surprisingly, he had no problem getting re-elected as mayor - a title he uses to help keep Centralia in the news and stop the state of Pennsylvania pressuring people to leave.
"Every once in a while they send us a letter telling us we're still in danger," says Lamar. In 1992 the state condemned all the buildings. In 2002 the US Postal Service revoked the town's postcode, 17927.
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs is urging the remaining stragglers to move.
He says: "That fire will probably burn for another 300 years, and eventually it will burn under the entire town.
"Quite frankly, I would not want to wait until someone did die to say that's when we move them out."
COPYRIGHT 2006 MGN LTD