On a cold and gray Sunday, hundreds of people, some with their pets or video cameras, came to the Susquehanna River yesterday to marvel at the power of nature as it exploded through the open gates of Conowingo Dam.
Downstream at beleaguered Port Deposit, rescuers and town officials gave an exhausted sigh of relief and cursed the mighty waters that forced evacuation of their riverfront town and carried yachts away like bathtub toys.
Some also cursed the PECO Energy Co., owners of the dam, which opened 39 of 52 flood gates -- with little warning -- to release the swollen Susquehanna in their direction. "The water had to go somewhere," a utility spokesman said.
"The river crested. I've been here since early Saturday morning, and I'm ready to go home and crash," Port Deposit Mayor Erma M. Keetley said last night.
She said damage assessment, which could climb into the millions of dollars, will begin today. Approximately 700 Port Deposit residents -- practically the entire population -- who evacuated Saturday may be able to return to their homes today.
"Remarkably, there was no loss of life because of the spirit of everybody who helped," Ms. Keetley said. "But we have lots of work to do. Most of Main Street was covered with ice, mud, goop. The condominiums at Tome's Landing got quite a bit of damage. And the town's water pumps were wiped out."
The 100 condominiums, which sold for about $200,000 each when they went on the market two years ago, suffered extensive water and ice damage, officials said.
At least six large sailboats and yachts were smashed into a pier and several others were believed to have been washed out to the bay or sunk, said Sgt. Robert Irwin of the Cecil County Sheriff's Office.
Many who escaped the rising waters complained about PECO opening the floodgates six miles upstream from Port Deposit, a quaint town on the National Historic Register "where everybody knows everybody," said Kerry Abrams, a town council member.
Officials with PECO said rising waters left them no choice. That explanation, however, took nothing away from the frightening surprise the townsfolk experienced.
was at my desk doing paperwork Saturday and I heard water hitting the side of my building," said Chris McAfee, superintendent of water and wastewater. "That quickly I was trapped. The water had risen to 5 feet outside. I was never notified. Luckily, I had my canoe and got out that way."
Bud Lang escaped with his wife and five children from their Main Street home in a boat brought up to their house by firefighters wearing insulated wet suits to ward off the frigid water.
"The river rose so fast," Mr. Lang said at Bainbridge Elementary School, an American Red Cross evacuation center where more than 250 people slept, ate and received counseling.
"We never got no warning," he said. "We were real lucky we got on those boats with the firemen. They did a good job."
Scores of paid and volunteer firefighters from Port Deposit, Perryville, Havre de Grace and Middle River evacuated more than 100 people from their homes by small boats, including 10 Perry Point Veterans Administration Hospital outpatients, two of whom had to be hospitalized.
Dennis Denbeck of the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Unit said his group of men and women, who specialize in water rescue, was prepared to pluck trapped residents off their roofs by state police helicopter if the river had raged higher.
"Not everyone was willing to leave their homes, especially two inebriated gentlemen," Mr. Denbeck said. "They kept on saying they survived Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, but we convinced them to join us."
To Lt. Jim Rapposelli of the Perry Point Fire Department, working the boats in the swift and icy waters on Port Deposit's Main Street Saturday resembled "white-water rafting. There was a lot of risk-taking going on during those rescues. We got out 28 people, three dogs and one cat."
Megan Lopez, 12, was rescued along with her mother and five brothers and sisters.
"The water was coming into my hallway," she said. "I had never seen anything like that before so I got scared at first. But they brought us out by boat, and we stayed in the school. I made a lot of new friends. And I know my teddy bear Cuddles is OK because he's on the third floor at my house nice and dry."
Shawni Hall, 18, who works as a waitress at MacGregor's Restaurant and Tavern in Havre de Grace, was rescued by boat, picked up by a friend in a car and reported to work two hours late.
"The water was up to the firemen's chest," she said. "They were really great."
While officials in Havre de Grace and Perryville maintained a round-the-clock watch on the river, they reported little damage.
"We lost one pier and I saw a sailboat go flying by in the river, but fortunately we escaped the real fury," said Steve Pearson, a Perryville resident.
In sharp contrast to the adversity suffered by flood victims, hundreds of spectators lined Cecil and Harford county shorelines yesterday to watch the river burst through Conowingo's floodgates.
State police closed the U.S. 1 bridge over the dam because of the ice behind it. "It's awesome!" declared Anthony Townsend, 12, of Delta, Pa., who went with his father, James, to see the spectacular show that lifted mist 150 feet into the air above the river.
Thomas Harrington, a salesman from Bel Air, made a video of ice and the river's angry waters.
"There was more water with Agnes in '72 but she didn't have the ice," said Mr. Harrington.
"You see something like this every quarter-century or so. It's so powerful."
Kitty Clarkson of White Hall in northern Baltimore County spoke reverently of the river.
"I cursed nature in these last weeks when I was driving in the blizzard and fog," she said.
"Today I came here just to marvel at it. It humbles us."