Government was slow in helping residents



Monday, May 27, 2002

Of The Patriot-News

Carrie Wolfgang, who is Domboski's grandmother, spotted the delegation coming out of a home across the street. Todd was dispatched to find out who they were.

A typical 12-year-old, he took off on a run but stopped to talk to his cousin, Eric Wolfgang, 16. He continued on, cutting through the yard between neighbors Eleanor Tillmont and Rita Kleman when he spotted a wisp of what appeared to be smoke rising from a tiny opening in the ground.

Walking up, he suddenly sank to his knees in the dirt, then dropped out of sight. He clutched a thick tree root as steam mixed with carbon monoxide billowed around him and out of the hole.

"I started just wanting to get out, but I said, I'll try to use my hands or get any type of footing," Domboski said. "It would be a feeling like you could imagine if you were falling through some ice. And you're not getting anywhere. And the hole's not that big, but you're struggling, you're breaking more ice off. A handful at a time. You're screwed."

He screamed for help and his cousin heard him. Eric could not see Todd in the hole, so thick was the steam. Finally he spotted Todd's red hunting cap and reached down and pulled him out, covered in mud.

Later, the gas inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Resources would tell him that the amount of carbon monoxide in the hole should have killed him, even in the short time he was underground. Domboski had sensed even while he struggled that he might be about to die.

"If I could just stop from falling even more, that was my goal," he recalled. "I'd already gave up on getting out myself."

He had no apparent medical effects from the deadly gas, but his head was a different story. "I remember right after that happened, I couldn't stand sleeping with that blanket over my chest. I didn't want nothing covering me." And there were the nightmares.

"I would be back there in that town, going about my everyday business as a 12-year-old kid, shooting BB guns and driving our bikes around," Domboski said. "It wasn't necessarily that episode, falling into the subsidence. I'd be riding my bike or dream I'd be going to school. I'd be walking home for lunch and the pavements would crack under my feet."

Help comes slowlyWith the delegation of public officials in Centralia that day, Todd's fall got wide coverage in the press. But the catalyst for what happened next was probably a retired general, Dewitt C. Smith. A former commander of the Army War College in Carlisle, he was head of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in 1981.

Smith, who now lives in Niantic, Conn., became the state's point man on Centralia from 1981-83 and remains a widely respected figure among former residents of the town.

"I recruited myself," said the former general, one of the few to rise to that rank from enlisted man. "As I vaguely recall, I read about some little boy whose feet went through the ground. That got my attention. I'm a soft-hearted soul, even though I'm a soldier."

Although mine fires were not traditionally under the purview of PEMA, Smith reasoned that what was happening in Centralia was indeed an emergency. "I went up by myself, looked it over, and formed some impressions."

Smith also sent a note to Gov. Dick Thornburgh, but came away with the impression that neither the governor nor his young aides were all that interested. "He really did not see the connection between what was going on and what was important," Smith said.

That would change, he said. After former Centralia Mayor John Coddington was overcome in his home by mine fire gases on March 19, 1981, Smith persuaded Thornburgh to visit Centralia. That raised spirits and hopes for a solution, but it was slow in coming because of Reagan administration opposition.

Smith minces no words in recalling Secretary of the Interior James Watt. "Watt was the worst secretary of the interior to come down the pike," he said. "My general impression of him was that he was negative on everything that seemed to help people. He was conservative defined badly."

In the months to come, Smith tried to keep spirits high, visiting often and telling Centralia residents that state government really did care about them. He tried to be a sounding board, and came to admire many of the people of the town for what they endured and how they carried on.

Yet Smith wasn't privy to many high-level policy talks in the administration on what to do about Centralia. "Nobody talked to me much about this," he said. "I just went and did it."

More than a year and a half later, the $42 million Centralia relocation was approved by Congress, in November 1983, long after Smith had resigned from PEMA. Under terms of the program, residents received fair market value of their homes so they could relocate.

Later, the deal was improved to give residents enough money to build houses of the same size as those they were leaving. Less than a million dollars of that original $42 million remains 19 years later, according to Bill Klink, executive director of Columbia County Redevelopment Authority. All but 16 residents have left.

Smith says he was unprepared for the affection he generated among Centralia residents. He received cards and letters even years afterward urging him to stop by if he were in the neighborhood.

Domboski and his mother were part of an initial smaller relocation of the most-affected families in 1981. That deal offered much less for homes -- mine fire value, it was derisively called -- and he believes they got "a raw deal." But getting out, he acknowledges, was the important thing.

"Someone was going to be killed there if they wouldn't have done what they did," he said. "So I guess it was the best thing at the time. They just could have maybe done it a little differently."

DAVID DeKOK is a Patriot-News reporter and author of the book "Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government and the Centralia Mine Fire." He can be reached at (717) 255-8173 or ddekok@patriot-news.com

Copyright 2002 The Patriot-News. Used with permission.