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Nature wins in 'The Town That Was'

What happened in Centralia, Pa., in the 1960s — the aftermath of which is recorded in The Town That Was — is a textbook case of how man can never fully control nature.

In 1962, as members of the Centralia Volunteer Fire Department prepared for the annual Memorial Day commemoration, they set a controlled fire in the town dump. Unfortunately, the control didn't last long. The fire touched off a seam of anthracite coal underneath the thriving mining town.

The local firefighters asked the state for emergency assistance, which came too late, and the fire burned on and on. It's smoldering still — 47 years later. And Centralia, choked by smoke, poisoned by carbon monoxide and close to incinerated, became a ghost town.

It would have cost more than a half-billion dollars to extinguish the fire, so the government decided to raze the town and relocate its residents. Today, 11 holdouts remain, living above the 8-mile-long, still-sizzling seam of coal that has enough fuel to burn for 250 more years.

At the heart of The Town That Was is John Lokitis. The youngest of the remaining residents, he lives in his grandfather's house, holding on to his history and fighting to keep alive a hometown that is all but forgotten. Even as the field behind him belches smoke, Lokitis says Centralia is safe, but the government won't let those who remain sell the land and restart the town. Experts say the ground beneath his feet could reignite at any time.

Is it any wonder that a horror story, 2006's Silent Hill, was set in this environ?

First-time filmmakers Chris Perkel and Georgie Rowland shot The Town That Was, a film festival favorite, over four years, incorporating interviews and fascinating old home movies. The Town That Was is not rated and lists for $22.95.

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