Black ribbons fluttered in the breeze as a homemade pinwheel bearing 29 names turned slowly, lending a splash of color to an otherwise overcast day in southern West Virginia. Here, residents are still coming to grips with the state’s worst mining disaster in more than two decades. Part of that process continued Sunday, when President Obama spoke at a eulogy for the 29 coal miners who died in the accident.
I’ve never been one to turn down a hot story, and Centralia is smoking – literally. A Pennsylvania coal mining town that’s been on fire 44 years; 11 stubborn old-timers who refuse to leave; fiery sidewalks that melt the soles off your shoes. How could I resist? An abandoned strip mine caught fire in 1962, igniting an underground coal seam that has burned under Centralia ever since. Experts say it could burn another 250 years. I imagined an eerie, smoke-laden atmosphere, sun streaming across a barren landscape, miles of scorched Earth. Why would people live in such a Godforsaken place?