Monday, June 23, 2014

The Hole

You see things from a bike that you don't notice in a car. In this case, what probably looks like a pretty minor little pothole to most motorists is actually a pretty serious sinkhole in the making.

It doesn't look like much, but this thing is just waiting for the
right car or truck to come along and break it open. Then look out.
On the surface the hole is not even a foot across. As I was steering around it, I happened to look into the hole and found that there is no bottom. OK, that's an exaggeration, but without having a measuring tape with me, I figure it has to be at least 3 feet deep. What's worse is that the hole extends back at least a couple of feet in each direction under the asphalt -- as far as I could see -- it could be more. If this thing were to break open, it would swallow a small car.

As I was standing there with my bike, snapping a picture of the hole, an Akron police officer drove by. Thinking I should probably alert somebody in the public safety sector, I waved to get his attention. He waved back and kept going. Sigh.

While there are various types of naturally-occuring sinkholes, ones like this typically start with a leaky pipe. Little by little, the soil surrounding a leaking sewer pipe will get washed down the pipe, opening up a void. Heavy rains will enlarge the void, washing more soil down the pipe, and the process continues and escalates. Depending on how long it continues, such a void can become pretty massive -- sometimes big enough to swallow cars, houses, or city blocks.

The hole reminded me of a notable Akron disaster that happened almost exactly 50 years ago, in July 1964. On July 21st, a freakish storm moved through the area, dumping more than three inches of rain in about an hour. The volume of water overwhelmed the city's aging storm sewers. On a road then known as Tallmadge Ave., which passes over a branch of the Cuyahoga River and connects Akron's west and north sides, little did anyone know but over the years a long-leaking sewer had opened up a 40-foot void below the pavement.

The violent storm was the final straw for the impending chasm. When a large truck drove over the spot, the pavement collapsed. An Akron woman, named Velma Shidler, was in her car just behind the truck when the pavement opened up. Her young daughter and her daughter's friend were in the car with her. Though she tried to swerve around the hole, the crater opened wider and her car plunged into it, landing upside down with storm waters filling in around them.

The massive chasm killed 3 people in one of the
most notable disasters in Akron History.
(Akron Beacon Journal photo)
A 19-year-old college student named Hugh O'Neil, home for the summer from Georgetown University, was one of the first to try to help the struggling occupants of the car. He was soon joined by an Akron policeman, Ronald Rotruck, and eventually firemen and other civilians, some of whom also fell into the crater as more earth and pavement collapsed around them. Some were injured, but most of them were able to be pulled to safety.

Though Mrs. Shidler and her daughter's friend were rescued, O'Neil and Rotruck were attempting to get Shidler's young daughter free from the car when another large cave-in happened. O'Neil was washed away in the storm waters, while Rotruck and the little girl were buried in the debris and died. O'Neil's body was later found by divers in the Cuyahoga River.

A year later, Tallmadge Ave. was re-named Memorial Parkway in honor of the three people who were killed.

And to think it all started with a leaky pipe.

The spot where this disaster happened is only a mile or two from my home. I cross it sometimes on my way to the trailhead for the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, which is just a short distance away from the spot where the ground opened up and swallowed those people 50 years ago. Interestingly, it is also just a couple of miles from spot where I discovered this new crater developing. Although the new crater has a ways to go before it gets to be as dangerous or deadly as the chasm from the past, I called the city services department to alert them to it before it gets any worse.

For those people out there who think cyclists have no business on the roads -- you're welcome.

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