By Greg Walter
Updated June 22, 1981 12:00 PM

The citizens of Centralia, Pa. aren’t kidding when they talk about having a hot time in the old town tonight. The surface temperature in Joan Girolami’s backyard has been measured at 626°F. Around town the ground frequently collapses into holes that spew out scalding clouds of smoke and gas. Some houses tilt crazily out of line and are wired inside with expensive gas detectors that ring and buzz when the air is no longer safe to breathe. In Centralia, even the dead cannot rest in peace. Graves in the town’s two cemeteries are believed to have dropped into the abyss of fire that rages below them. Thirteen-year-old Todd Domboski nearly met the same fate last Valentine’s Day when the ground in his grandmother’s backyard sank under his feet and he plunged screaming into a 12-foot chasm filled with deadly carbon monoxide. Luckily, his fall was broken by a tree root and his cousin pulled him out. “The smoke was so thick I couldn’t see anything,” he remembers. “I was only in there a minute, but it seemed like an hour.”

The Dantesque specter that haunts Centralia is the product of a 19-year-old fire that smolders below the borough of 1,100 in Pennsylvania’s coal country. The fire was discovered in May 1962 in an abandoned strip mine that was being used as a garbage dump. It could have been extinguished then at a cost of $50,000, according to one study. However, state and federal officials demanded that half of that cost come from the county. Local officials were unable to pay, and the fire was covered up. Since then the blaze has spread through the mining tunnels under the town at an estimated rate of 500 feet per year. Sulfurous fumes now billow into the air from 1,800 boreholes that have been driven into the ground to relieve the pressure.

Today it possibly would cost more than $100 million to extinguish the fire, and the process would require evacuation of a large part of Centralia. On May 19 the town’s citizens voted 434 to 204 to approve a nonbinding referendum supporting the evacuation. That step was largely symbolic, however, and thus far the only aid the town has received is a $1.1 million emergency grant from the U.S. Interior Department, a large portion of which will be used to buy 26 endangered homes and relocate their owners. Says Christine Oakum, 28, one of those homeowners: “We’d rather give up our homes than one of our children.”

Surprisingly, citizen concern about Centralia’s plight was slow to develop. When Mrs. Oakum and her husband, Tom, a state employee, bought their small house on Centralia’s main street in 1975, they were told that the fires “were going the other way.” They were misinformed. Today their house is equipped with machines to detect the levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and oxygen. “Suppose someone isn’t protected from the gas and gets a headache,” she worries. “The natural thing for them to do is take a couple of aspirin and lie down to rest. It could be their last rest.” Lately Mrs. Oakum has taken to writing letters to federal government officials. The results, however, have been less than satisfactory. President Carter passed her note on to the Bureau of Mines. President Reagan has yet to respond. “Finally,” she says, “I wrote a letter to the Secretary of Health. I got a letter back telling me that I shouldn’t let my children sniff the cracks in the floor. Can you beat that?”

Another angry Centralian is Agnes Owens, a 65-year-old widow. Two years ago one of Mrs. Owens’ sons died of a kidney disease. Another son, also afflicted with the disease, moved to Seattle after doctors told him that his condition was aggravated by the gases in his mother’s house. Now Mrs. Owens herself is planning to flee her hometown. “I want to stay but I’m scared. I’m leaving this fall for good. To keep your sanity that’s what you have to do,” she said. “If I was offered foreign aid, I’d take it,” she added bitterly. “My own government isn’t helping me much.”

Despite the inferno below them and the gases that seep into their basements, some Centralians do not want to leave their homes and remain convinced that it’s all a plot by coal companies to drive them off valuable land since the borough owns mineral rights to the coal below. (Other rumored villains have variously included anonymous Arabs and large energy cartels.) Helen Womer, 52, lives in the “hot” section of town but doesn’t believe that she is in danger, and she refuses to install a gas-detection machine in her house. “We’re not afraid of the gases, and we’re not going to become slaves to a machine,” she says. “We burn coal for heat and always have. If we had one of those machines, it would be going off all the time.” She and her husband, Carl, informed federal officials that they are not about to leave. “I’m not going to let the coal barons win,” she vows.

Catharene Jurgill, 19, however, is less concerned about mineral rights and coal conspiracies than she is about the fate of her unborn baby. Expecting her second child next month, she learned from a county health official at a recent town meeting that living in her Centralia neighborhood could be dangerous to pregnant women and their babies in the first trimester. “Nobody knows what the gases do to an unborn child,” she says. “I guess I’m the test. I feel like a guinea pig.”

Meanwhile, the fire burns on—despite a local gag that three dozen spirited Centralians once tried to extinguish the blaze by mass micturition into a mine shaft. Rats are beginning to appear in town, driven from their lairs by the heat. Some officials have become worried that the fire is now threatening a six-inch natural gas main that runs under Route 61. A yellow school bus stands ready on a field in the event that an unexpected evacuation of the town is required. “We’re sitting on a time bomb,” says Ed Polites, 45, outgoing president of the Centralia borough council. “What we’re afraid of is that it will take someone’s death from the fire before we’ll get help.”