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Living in a Ghost Town

The last residents of Picher, Okla., hang on in an eerie landscape dominated by empty buildings, huge piles of mine waste and a giant gorilla.

The sun sets over an empty neighborhood in Picher, Okla., a nearly deserted town that had a population of over 14,000 people in the 1920s, when it was the world's largest producer of zinc and lead. At left and in the foreground are some of the area's many "chat piles" - heaps of gravelly mine waste.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

A handful of Picher's commercial buildings remain standing alongside U.S. Route 69. High levels of lead in schoolchildren drove some locals to seek relocation assistance from the government and in 2006, risk of collapsing mines led the federal government to offer property buyouts.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

An image from 1955 shows miners operating a 35-foot jumbo drill in a cavern below Picher.

Pharmacist Gary Linderman, 59, waves to a passing car. He runs the remaining retail business in Picher, Ole Miners Pharmacy. It's a social hub for former residents, who remain loyal to the store and travel from nearby towns for their medicine.

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"If it wasn't for the tornado I wouldn't have left," said Kathy Cox, 73, standing at the site of her former home in Picher, where she raised five kids. Thinking that risk from lead and mine collapse was overblown, Cox said she turned down a buyout offer of $8,000. Behind Cox is the chat pile where her children played. "We used to have weenie roasts up there. Kids would slide down on boards. It didn't kill 'em none." Cox survived the EF4 tornado that swept through Picher in 2008, but it destroyed her home and prompted her to leave town along with most of the remaining residents.

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A chimney remains standing above an empty slab on the north side of Picher.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

Karen Harvey, 53, waits for her medication at the Ole Miners Pharmacy. She went on disability two years ago, suffering from anxiety, respiratory problems and a thyroid condition. Harvey lived in Picher from 1960 to 2002, and as a kid she played on chat piles and swam in mill ponds. "We'd go swimming in them and our hair would turn orange and it wouldn't wash out," she said. At age 18 she had surgery to correct bone growth in her ears that interfered with hearing. Noting that she's also dyslexic and was recently tested with an I.Q. of 65, she said she's starting to wonder if her childhood in Picher contributed to her health problems. "I don't know if that has something to do with it or not," she said, "I'm just figuring it out as I get older."

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Weeds climb over the porch of the gutted Picher Mining Museum.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

"This is home," said Roberta Blevins, 43, one of fewer than 10 people still living in Picher. Blevins and her husband moved to Picher nine years ago after a tree fell on their home in nearby Douthat, Okla., killing their six-year-old daughter. Trying to protect her son, then 12, she didn't want to uproot him from the school he was already happily attending in Picher. Seeing her struggle to find a place to live in the area, some community members in Picher helped arrange a land swap and a good deal on a trailer near the school, she said. "Picher is the kind of community that when something happens to one of their own, people come together and help. They'll do what they can do."

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Floor tiles curl up on an empty slab in Picher.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

Jack Greene, 91, worked in the mines beneath Picher from 1938 to 1941, before he was drafted into the Army during World War II. He remembers tremors from the mines shaking pencils off the desks at the high school. "They let people destroy this country from being so greedy," he said, describing the practice of removing pillars of rock originally left in place by miners to support the caverns they'd dug out.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

An old "dog house," where miners would change clothes after work, stands in central Picher. In 1927, according to local history buff Ed Keheley, 40 percent of miners in Picher had silicosis, a lung condition caused by dust inhalation, and in 1934 the town had the highest rate of tuberculosis in the country.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

"I painted these walls," said David Ray, 62, standing in the pool hall his dad Hoppy operated in Picher from 1963 to 2009. Ray, who lives in Commerce, Okla. now, grew up in Picher and remembers playing with lead as a child: "It was everywhere. It was heavy and it looked neat and it had a tangy taste. When I was a kid I'd put lead in a coffee grinder. And put it all over myself. We'd swim in cave-ins that were filled with water." Ray wonders if his school troubles (his two weeks in college were "the most embarrassing and humiliating experience of my life") and health problems (cataracts starting at age 30, and now chronic kidney disorder) are connected to his childhood lead exposure.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

Ground water from the Boone Aquifer flows into Tar Creek after emerging rust-colored and carrying heavy metals from a collapsed mine and test holes in Picher. The Tar Creek Superfund site was designated in 1983.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

A classroom sits empty at Picher Cardin High School.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

John Sparkman spent 18 years on the school board in Picher, and led the push among locals to get a government buyout. He said that after numerous students showed learning disabilities, "We implemented every kind of program we could, but there was no end in sight. It's not that every kid is affected, but we are responsible for those who are."

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Ed Keheley, 71, stands near a collapsed mine shaft in an abandoned neighborhood in Picher. Keheley, a retired nuclear engineer who is writing a history of mining in Picher, says there are more than 100 shafts in town and 1203 shafts in the area. This one had already closed by 1926, when an illegal distillery was discovered inside it with 40,000 gallons of whiskey. Keheley says it was the largest illegal still raided during Prohibition.

Born in Flippin, Ark., Keheley moved to Picher at age one, when his father came to work in the mines. The family moved to California when Ed was 14 as mining operations were declining. "I can't think of a better place to have been raised," he said of the close-knit community, "there was no upper class here, so everybody was on a level playing field." He moved back to the region after retiring and took up the cause of people affected by lead poisoning, helping to advocate for the buyout.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

Tires float with other junk in a pond formed by a collapsed mine outside Picher. Before the ground at this spot collapsed into the cavern below, leaving a 250-foot wide hole, there were three mine shafts visible at the surface, each with a five-by-seven-foot opening. The threat of more such collapses eventually prompted the government to offer buyouts to Picher residents.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

Steps lead to an empty slab below the Premier chat pile.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

Sixty-five feet below Picher Cardin High School's gorilla statue is an old mining cavern. It's 106 feet tall, 300 feet in diameter and is supported by a single concrete pillar 18-feet in diameter -- a "toothpick," according to Ed Keheley -- that was poured in 1939.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

Because it's listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this church in Picher escaped the demolition fate of many of the town's structures.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com

A cross stands near an empty slab in PIcher.

John Brecher / NBCNews.com