Hours after plunging into the Earth, Todd Domboski stares at the abyss that briefly swallowed him—a hole swirling with toxic gases from an underground mine fire.
On February 14, 1981, 12-year-old Domboski sank into a cave-in that ruptured the soil in his grandmother's backyard in Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an abandoned coal mine had smoldered for 19 years.
The Centralia blaze, still burning more than 50 years after it began, ranks as the worst mine fire in the United States. But it is by no means the only one. More than 200 underground and surface coal fires are burning in 14 states, according to the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
And with worldwide demand for coal surging, especially in industrializing nations such as India and China, mine fires have emerged as a global environmental and public health threat. Thousands of coal fires rage on every continent but Antarctica, endangering nearby communities. The blazes spew toxic substances such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, mercury, and arsenic, as well as greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. (See related story: "Seeking a Safer Future for Electricity's Coal Ash Waste.")
In Centralia, Domboski survived his 45-second ordeal by grabbing onto tree roots. He screamed for help until his cousin ran to his aid, reached into the void, and hoisted him out.
Many Centralia residents had long feared a calamity like the one that nearly unfolded that Valentine's Day. Four years earlier, Domboski's father had told a reporter, "I guess some kid will have to get killed by the gas or by falling in one of these steamy holes before anyone will call it an emergency."
Joan Quigley is author of the 2007 book about Centralia, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy.
This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.