It's hard to believe that an underground fire in an abandoned mine raged for decades beneath the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Centralia. Spewing toxic fumes and generating hellish temperatures, the fire also ignited heat among longtime residents. Should they stay or should they vacate? And in the matter of the latter, who should pay? After all, the folks here had a median annual income of $9,000. The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy is a meticulous account of the tangled saga of hometown, history and Reagan-era governmental red tape. Author Joan Quigley, a former business reporter for the Miami Herald, and a descendant of coal miners, uses her own family history to illustrate the stubborn determination of those who have toiled in the anthracite coal region of Appalachia. Via Centralia, she charts the coal industry's highs and lows. It was in 1962, following the collapse of the industry, that the Centralia fire erupted at a garbage dump landfill. In ensuing years, federal and state agencies and the community bickered over possible remedies. In late 1973, a three-year $2.8 million effort was pronounced a success. Months later, a five-foot diameter hole appeared in the surface, erupting with smoke and steam. A turning point came in 1981 when a 12-year-old boy was swallowed by a sinkhole with temperatures of 160 degrees. He managed to survive by clinging to the roots of a tree. Afterward, the press descended on Centralia NBC News, People magazine, Nightline which further polarized the town. Ironically, there's no mention of the fire in the time capsule that was buried during the Centralia Centennial in 1966. Instead, it includes a Bible, a souvenir booklet about the town, a miner's carbide lamp and lumps of coal. When it's opened in the year 2016, former residents of the former town are expected to attend. Though Quigley's narrative can be confusing when it jumps back and forth in time, there's no quibbling with her attention to detail. Especially vivid are the diverse townsfolk who struggled over the fate of their hometown.
Pat H. Broeske is a biographer and a segment producer for Court TV.