On a Saturday morning, Valentine’s Day 1981, Todd Domboski played with his cousin in his grandmother’s yard in Centralia, PA when he noticed some smoke rising from the ground nearby. As he moved closer to investigate, the ground suddenly gave way and he started sinking into the hot slippery mud. He tried to gain footing, but it was futile—the hot, slimy earth was swallowing him. As more and more of his body became submerged, he tried desperately to free himself from the collapsing earth. Sinking into the growing abyss, he clasped onto a clump of tree roots sticking out of the hot, sticky earth, to halt his fall.
Todd tried in vain to extract himself, but it was impossible. He breathed in the toxic gasses and smoke. (The heat in the hole later measured at 350 degrees.) He screamed for help. His cousin Erik Wolfgang rushed over and spotted Todd’s orange baseball cap in the pit. Erik yelled for his cousin to reach for his hand and he somehow pulled Todd from the hungry, swallowing earth.
This incident came on the day that local residents were meeting with U.S. Representative James Nelligan (R-PA) to discuss the underground mine fire. The story shook the town of Centralia making national headlines and bringing further mass media attention to the town.
Corroded in hot, sulfurous mud, Todd was taken to Ashland Hospital where he was medically examined for gas inhalation including carbon monoxide. He was found to be in good condition and released. “They couldn’t believe I was alive and that I didn’t have brain damage. The hole turned out to be close to three hundred feet deep, three hundred fifty degrees, and eleven parts per million carbon monoxide, ” said Todd Domboski. (Jacobs, 1986/2010, p. 9)
The family later moved from the town, an exodus that most residents would follow in the next years for varying reasons: “The state bought our house in the first relocation, but it was depreciated 20 percent for the mine fire. They didn’t help at all with the move, so we moved by car since I couldn’t afford a moving van,” said Todd’s mother Flo. (Jacobs, 1986/2010, p. 9)
Jacobs, Renée. (1986/2010). Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Quigley, Joan. (2007). The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy. New York, NY: Random House.
“Twelve-year old hauled out of mine pit.” (1981, February 15). Sunday Intelligencer. pp. A-2.