The Day the Earth Caved In is an unprecedented and riveting account of the nation's worst mine fire, beginning on Valentine's Day, 1981, when twelve-year-old Todd Domboski plunged through the earth in his grandmother's backyard in Centralia, Pennsylvania. In astonishing detail, award-winning journalist Joan Quigley, the granddaughter of Centralia miners, ushers readers into the dramatic world of the underground blaze----from the media circus and back-room deal-making spawned in the wake of Todd's sudden disappearance, to the inner lives of every day Centralians who fought a government that wouldn't listen.
Drawing on interviews with key participants and exclusive new research, Quigley paints unforgettable portraits of Centralia and its residents, from Tom Larkin, the short-order cook and ex-hippie who rallied the activists, to Helen Womer, a bank teller who galvanized the opposition, denying the fire's existence even as toxic fumes invaded her home. Here, too, we see the failures of major
political and government figures, from Centralia's congressman, "Dapper" Dan Flood, a former actor who later resigned in the wake of corruption allegations, to James Watt, a former lawyer-lobbyist for the mining industry, who became President Reagan's controversial interior secretary.
Like Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, The Day the Earth Caved In is a seminal investigation of individual rights, corporate privilege, and governmental indifference to the powerless. Exposing facts in prose that reads like fiction, Quigley shows us what happens to a small community when disaster strikes, and what it means to call someplace home.
Praise for The Day the Earth Caved In:
"First rate research and journalism combing to tell a sad, often infuriating tale." -- Kirkus Reviews (starred)
" Quigley's riveting account of the nation's most devastating mine fire will change the way you think about so-called natural disasters, and the emotions we attach to the places we call home. This is an extraordinary book." -- Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy
"Quigley's tale is a real-life epic of brutally indifferent government, greedy corporations and the unlikely heroes who fight for their basic human rights. It's all here; made in America. You'll feel enraged to know the truth of what happened in our mountains and proud of your fellow Americans who took on Goliath."
-- John Passacantando, Executive Director, Greenpeace USA
"If you can imagine a book that combines the gritty dignity of How Green Was My Valley with the muckraking of Silent Spring, then you have some sense of this deeply affecting work."
-- Samuel G. Freedman, author of Upon This Rock
"Joan Quigley, the granddaughter of coal miners, has combined meticulous reporting and personal passion to bring us this important book -- one that illuminates an underground blaze that many corporate and government officials sought to smother and conceal."
-- Gay Talese, author of A Writer's Life
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April 02, 2007
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Excerpt from The Day the Earth Caved In by Joan Quigley
Powder Keg Mary Lou Gaughan grabbed some Windex and paper towels and stepped onto her front porch. Overhead, beyond her red and white aluminum awning, the sun shone down on Wood Street, bathing her neighbor's row homes in late-spring warmth. Summer, at long last, beckoned. Across town, similar routines unfolded, especially among neighbors who, like her, tackled chores left unfinished from Easter week: a litany of tasks inherited from immigrant mothers and grandmothers. Mattresses had to be flipped, linoleum polished, spring curtains hung. Outside, winter grime had to be wiped from front doors, a shine buffed onto parlor windows, and sidewalks swept free of leaves. Years earlier, when collieries spewed coal dust across the borough and women waged an almost daily battle against black silt, these tasks sprang from practicality and pride, cued, like the Resurrection, to the promise of rebirth. Now, with three days remaining until May 30 and scores of residents slated to converge on the borough for Memorial Day 1962, those who remained honored tradition and burnished appearances, unfurling American flags and draping them from porch railings and banisters. For many, a separate ritual awaited in the borough's cemeteries, one for each religious denomination: Catholic, Protestant, Greek Catholic, and Russian Orthodox. In front of ancestral graves, they planted rows of red geraniums or purple, white, and pink petunias. Others tendered bouquets of yellow or red roses or, for the Irish, a wicker basket of green carnations. Still others tended to landscaping like groundskeepers, plucking weeds and mowing strips of grass the size of twin mattresses. Even before the mines closed, few Centralians risked the stigma of an untended family plot. Back on Wood Street, Mary Lou, a thirty-four-year-old garment worker with fair skin, pale blue eyes, and short curly brown hair, leaned into the concrete porch of her ranch-style house, coaxing a gleam from her three side-by-side parlor windows. On the inside, just a few inches from the glass, a Blessed Virgin statue presided over the center, as in a Renaissance triptych, garbed in white robes and gazing toward the sidewalk. Behind Mary Lou, a few feet away, her husband, Tony, a thirty-eight-year-old mine worker with Buddy Holly glasses and slicked-back hair, assumed his Sunday posture. Nestled in his rocking patio chair, he faced Locust Avenue, surveying his neighbors next door, where he grew up, and across the street. A row of four wood frame houses loomed to his right, buttressed by Nance Maloney's two-story home, with its flat roof. A white picket fence demarcated her yard like rickrack trim stitched to the hem of a dress. Nance's father, Jack McGinley, had owned a bar and hotel, a saloon awash in Depression-era bootleg whiskey. To Mary Lou, he projected the aura of the elite, lavishing his wealth on the parish and his daughter, from fur stoles to a college education. Down at the opposite end of the row, where Fran Jurgill lived, A-line eaves jutted over third-floor attic windows, like a child's rendering of mountain peaks. At the end of the next block, Wood Street spilled onto Locust Avenue. Cars and trucks rumbled past, gunning for church, the other end of town, or destinations over the mountains, from Ashland to Bloomsburg and beyond. Behind Tony, over Mary Lou's left shoulder, stood the row of houses--two halves of a duplex, called half-doubles, and an unattached single home--built and colonized by Michael and Anna Fowler Laughlin. The dump's on fire! she heard a voice cry. Mary Lou glanced over toward Annie Donahue Ryan's house, with its white wooden porch railings and facade of red shingles. In Annie's backyard, a dirt path meandered into the woods east of town, a thicket of huckleberry and laurel bushes called the picnic grounds.