Since many of us know people who are affected, hearing those depressing daily reports of people losing their homes due to our ailing economy has been hard to take.

But imagine losing your town?

That has been the unfortunate hand dealt to the people who populated the once-proud coal-mining town of Centralia. Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam's enlightening article in Saturday's edition of the TIMES NEWS tells of a village in its final death throes. Because of the underground mine fire, which has been burning since 1962, Rubinkam said Centralia now resembles a "moonscape."

Many of us who are sons or grandsons of coal miners can sympathize since so many of the small towns in this region owe their existence to the coal industry.

All efforts to save Centralia have proved futile. By the early 1980s, the toxic carbon monoxide fumes seeping out of the ground and into homes had reached life threatening levels, causing a mass exodus.

Because the mine fire was so advanced, the government's attempt to subsidize the massive attempt to save the town from the fire was like pouring money down a giant sink hole, which literally, it had become. A defining moment in the town's demise came in 1981, when a 12-year-old boy nearly died after being sucked into a cavernous opening in the ground which was full of hot, noxious fumes.

Over the nearly five decades the fire has been burning, it has cost the state over $40 million. One engineering study released in 1983 said that the fire could burn for another century or even more, and "could conceivably spread over an area of approximately 3,700 acres."

Most heart-wrenching is seeing those few holdouts who remain in their homes, clinging to their meager earthly possessions. They remain in their homesteads even after the dwellings were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s. But now, the state is moving as quickly as possible to possess these remaining homes in order to have them leveled.

The generations that helped build the town have given up hope for any kind of revival. The expression that "those who live by the sword die by the sword" can apply here.

In Centralia's case, that sword turned out to be the large vein of coal it was built over.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com