THE DAY THE EARTH CAVED IN: An American Mining Tragedy. By Joan Quigley. Random House. 2007. Hardcover. 223 pages.
Before he began sinking into the ground, 12-year-old Todd Domboski noticed a wisp of smoke floating from the ground “like a smoldering match buried under damp leaves.”
In Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an abandoned coal mine had been burning beneath the town for 19 years, the book explains, tiny fissures often punched through the topsoil, trailing bands of sulfurous steam.
This is not a Stephen King novel. It is a true story revealed in a book entitled, The Day the Earth Caved In, An American Mining Tragedy. Author Joan Quigley first visited Centralia at age 15 for her grandmother’s funeral. The funeral, in fact, interrupted her family’s annual Edgartown vacation.
On Valentine’s Day in 1981 Todd was in his grandmother’s backyard when he began to sink. He tried to pull himself up but plunged deeper. His hands and his waist disappeared into the slime and the “soggy earth kept melting, sucking him in and burying him.” Steam rolled up from beneath his feet and below him gasses from the fire “gushed skyward, fanned by oxygen from the opening over his head.” The gasses made a howling sound like the “roar of a tornado.”
I’m going to die, Todd thought. But incredibly, he was able to latch onto a cluster of tree roots to stop the fall. He screamed, alerting his cousin Erik, who managed to pull him free.
The Day the Earth Caved in focuses mainly on the aftermath of Todd’s plunge, when residents of this small but traditionally close-knit mining town struggled against each other, against self-centered politicians, and through layer upon layer of governmental red tape in an effort to get relief from what was eventually declared the country’s worst mine fire.
The fire broke out in a garbage dump in 1962. As it reached the underground mining tunnels laden with millions of tons of anthracite coal, “it blazed throughout the coal like molten lava, spewing methane, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide.”
Government efforts to control it were unsuccessful, largely because too little money was spent to do the job right — an old, blue-collar mining town had little political clout.
Strangely enough, the residents more or less ignored the fire until about the time of Todd’s accident even though steam and sulfurous fumes rose out of vent pipes laid into the ground to release underground pressure. Mine fires, Ms. Quigley writes, were a part of life in coal country and the residents of Centralia — with a median income of about half the national average — were preoccupied with working and paying bills.
By the 1980s their babies were sleeping in homes equipped with carbon monoxide monitors; homes in which many stayed even when levels in some rooms reached almost three times the safety threshold.
The most absorbing and troubling part of this nightmarish story, aside from the blatant governmental abandonment of Centralia, is the fact that residents stayed despite the growing danger and illnesses. Some even downplayed the danger so the government wouldn’t kick them out.
Centralia is a focal point in the Quigley family’s success story. The author’s great-grandparents raised their family there and her grandfather’s distinguished career as a mine inspector began when he dropped out of the third grade to work at the mines.
That her own parents left Centralia and succeeded in providing their children with such things as a Vineyard vacation is a jarring contrast to those who fought to stay while the earth burned hotter and hotter beneath them — something an outsider may never truly understand. Ms. Quigley’s connection to Centralia is what inspired the book, and The Day the Earth Caved In succeeds in exposing wrongs that need to be exposed so such failures of justice are not endlessly recycled.