Baltimoreans know how to deal with disasters

November 16, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

IT HAS LONG BEEN MY contention that spectacular urban upheaval -- a fire or some sprawling accident -- is a occasion not only for gawking but also for learning something about the character of a place.

Baltimore witnessed just such an event last weekend when a huge sinkhole opened at Park Avenue and Franklin Street, leading to a gas main explosion that shook Mount Vernon out of a damp November morning's sleep.

In the course of covering this story, I could not help but notice some of the hallmarks of human behavior, Baltimore style.

I was amazed at the resilience of the retired people at the Basilica Place apartments, a large building whose occupants were evacuated minutes after the gas main went up in flames. Many walked down long flights of steps. They didn't complain -- at least to me -- as they sought refuge elsewhere in their nightclothes.

I couldn't help but think about what Beatrice Rubenstein told me. A New Yorker, she had been visiting Baltimore on an Elderhostel trip. When the electricity went out, she was trapped in the Mount Vernon Hotel's elevator. In time she got out, but she didn't particularly enjoy being trapped in a confined, dark space.

When she finally got down to the hotel's lobby, it was filled with displaced Basilica Place tenants. These temporary refugees, relieved to be out of harm's way, were signing a hymn -- "Thank You, Jesus." The sacred music, Rubenstein said, had a calming effect on everyone.

By Sunday, the utility crews were hard at work. The frenzy of Saturday was past and a safe feeling settled in as the neighborhood's residents returned. The displaced from Basilica Place lost little time getting back to their apartments.

And what was worrying them?

Their wash.

The early risers on Saturday had been in the apartment house's laundry room, only to be turned out on the street as their clothes remained stranded in the washers and dryers.

By the middle of the afternoon, I also noticed another curious phenomenon of the urban disaster. No matter what's happened -- and how perilous the situation -- you just have to steal a glance at the damage and the mess it's left behind. After all, streets don't collapse every day. And in two weeks it might be fixed.

I am as guilty as the next gawker. I got a helpful Pratt Library guard to unlock the front door, then escort me to the library's sunroom, a wonderful rooftop perch where I watched the gas flame at a safe distance. I wasn't the only looker. City and utility officials also ushered in their children. It drove the police crazy, but I'd bet a few of them invited guests, too.

The police were not in an uptight mood. Their yellow police-line tapes seemed to beckon guests. The Sportsmen's Lounge, a Park Avenue tavern just down the street from the blast site -- and technically inside police lines -- did a good business as customers found their way under the emergency lights.

I knew the worst was over when the elderly neighborhood residents who had been so inconvenienced by the blast caught the post-disaster curiosity bug. A pair of onlookers, riding in their motorized wheelchairs, darted across Hamilton Street (the street behind Franklin) in search of a good vantage point.

The central Pratt Library was closed because it had no heat or electricity over the weekend. And despite the media saturation coverage of the event, clueless students arrived at the library with armloads of overdue books and videos.

One of my friends who works downtown, on the other side of the city from the sinkhole, complained that traffic was severely tied up Monday morning. When I asked why this had affected her -- knowing that her route to work is nowhere near Park and Franklin -- her reply was Baltimore logical: "I wanted to see what it looked like."

When I asked if she could see anything from her car, she replied, "Of course not."

By Tuesday the sinkhole appeared ready for on-foot tourists. A work crew built a trim little wooden bridge over the temporary metal water supply pipes set out in the street.

The amenities appeared -- a little white tent setup, with urns of hot coffee for the workers. The Basilica Place people posted signs saying there was java available there too for the army of construction people.

That same apartment building has a small convenience store. In its window is a Hershey's ice cream clock. Its hands are stopped at 7:44, presumably the time the electricity went off that fateful Saturday. This was precisely the same hour that the hands on the big,official-looking clock in the Pratt's main hall stopped as well.

But in Baltimore, you never know. That convenience store clock could have been stopped for years.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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