When Keith Acornley saw the 25-foot-deep hole in August 1989 in the basement of his Reynolds Street double-block, he took out a mine subsidence insurance policy.
Knowing the Wyoming Valley's history and remembering his late father-in-law's stories of hearing miners talking in the tunnels beneath his house on nearby Orchard Street, Acornley decided to play it safe.
"I said I better get it in case it comes again," he said.
Eight years later the hole reappeared -- not as deep, but in the same place.
The rear of the house sank, taking down the sewer, water and gas lines and chasing his family from their home for a week until it could be stabilized with a steel beam the width of the structure.
Only then, could the hole be filled with concrete.
The problem hasn't reoccurred since that morning in late December 1997.
Acornley said he heard a loud bang and found his washer and dryer in the hole where his basement floor used to be.
He and his sons did the rebuilding that had to be approved by state inspectors. The insurance covered the repair work.
"It's not that it's out of reach as far as cost," said Acornley of the policy premium. For $75,000 in coverage he pays an annual premium of $68.50.
"I feel it's very valuable to have," he said. Otherwise, he would have to "pay all that expense out of my own pocket."
The average mine subsidence insurance premium is approximately $1 for every $1,000 of coverage and there is a $250 deductible.
Premium rates for residential properties run from $12.50 per year for $5,000 coverage to $128.50 for $150,000 coverage.
Senior citizens get a 10-percent discount. Nonresidential structures have separate rates.
Acornley's homeowner's policy covered his home's contents but not the structural damage. The policy, like most in place, excludes damage to a structure caused by the lateral or vertical movement of the earth due to the collapse of underground coal mining operations.
States in the Coal Belt region of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Illinois, however, offer special subsidence insurance programs.
Pennsylvania established its own in 1961 run by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the nonprofit Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund is supported by the premiums.
Since 1963, there have been 467 claims paid out in Luzerne County for a total $1.7 million, said Mark Carmon, spokesman for DEP's Wilkes-Barre office.
"Anyone who lives in the Wyoming Valley area from Duryea to Shickshinny really should have it," he said.
But not enough do, Carmon said. "From 1997 to today we've seen a decrease in the number of policies."
DEP data shows there were 6,301 policyholders in 1997. Currently, there are 5,670.
During the 1997-1998 fiscal year, three claims were paid for a total $43,400. In 1998-1999, one claim of $17,500 was paid. There were no claims in the 1999-2000 fiscal year.
And, last year, there was only one claim of $29,759.
One reason for the decline, Carmon said, is that many of the Valley's elderly residents who know the history of mining have died.
New people moving in might not know the subsurface is honeycombed with abandoned mines.
Some homeowners just don't think they need mine subsidence insurance.
"It's still the kind of thing -- out of sight out of mind," Carmon said.
The DEP has been advertising the insurance program in local newspapers.
The department's Web site www.dep.state.PA.us also contains information. From the home page click on section Individuals & Families which will open to a list of topics including the insurance program.
Homeowners also may call a toll-free number, (800) 922-1678, to contact the DEP mine subsidence insurance office in Wilkes-Barre.
Once the department receives an application, it sends out an engineer to survey the home, Carmon said. Only damage that occurs during the period of coverage is considered a loss. Homes under construction might be eligible under a special policy.
"I think this is the kind of insurance that sells itself," Carmon said.