`Horrifying' sinkhole fall recounted by driver

Randallstown woman says earth crumbled under her, car rolled `over and over'

April 30, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Each time she closes her eyes, Darlene Tuck says, she feels herself tumbling over and over again.

The 51-year-old mother and her 33-year-old daughter had been driving to lunch Wednesday afternoon at Owings Mills Mall when their Oldsmobile plummeted into a two-story sinkhole that Tuck said formed right before their eyes.

"It was horrifying," she said yesterday, in tears. "We knew we were going down, and there wasn't anything we could do about it."

The women were trapped in their car at the bottom of the pit for about an hour before rescue workers were able to saw open the vehicle's windshield and pull them to safety. Yesterday, they were resting at their homes, having suffered only minor injuries - cuts, bruises and muscle pain, Tuck said.

Meanwhile, crews worked to shore up the 20-foot-deep hole that measured 30 feet wide and 20 feet long on a two-lane mall entry road between Red Run Boulevard and Mill Run Circle. Mall management said it would investigate the sinkhole's cause, believed by county public works officials to be tied to a confluence of three underground pipes leading to a nearby storm water management pond.

From her Randallstown home yesterday morning, Tuck, a special-education aide for Baltimore County public schools, recounted the accident.

She and her only daughter, Glennis Renee Tuck-Webb, had been on their way to lunch at Ruby Tuesday at the mall. Tuck steered her Oldsmobile Delta 88 around a curve at the entrance to the mall - a route she'd driven dozens of times - when she spotted something amiss.

She saw dips and cracks on the surface of the entry road and tried to steer her car away. Then she felt the earth crumble beneath her wheels.

"The car rolled over and over," she said.

When the car came to a stop, passenger side down, the women realized they were alive but worried that any movement could send the car plunging even deeper into the hole. Some of the car's windows were broken and both airbags had inflated. Rocks jutted into the car.

Tuck, dangling by her seat belt, said she feared the belt would snap and that she would crush her daughter.

Panicked, the women screamed and cried. Then, they heard voices.

Two men had climbed down into the hole to see if they could help, Tuck said. One of the men propped up Tuck's head and held her hand through a broken window, she said.

Together, the four of them prayed, she said.

"They were kind enough to put their own lives at risk," Tuck said.

When firefighters arrived at the sinkhole, they helped the men out, according to Tuck and fire officials. The men apparently left, and neither Tuck nor county fire officials knew who they were.

Using ropes and ladders, five firefighters from the Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company descended into the muddy hole. Using a saw, the firefighters cut out the car's windshield and carefully lifted Tuck and then Tuck-Webb to safety.

Both women were flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. About two hours later, a crane plucked the pale-blue Oldsmobile from the sinkhole.

Tucks' two teen-age sons were working at a hot dog stand at Camden Yards on Wednesday afternoon when they got a call that their mother and sister had been hospitalized.

"That's crazy," Jason Tuck, 17, said he remembers thinking upon hearing what put the women in the hospital. "I can't even believe that."

Yesterday, Tuck was having difficulty moving her neck and talking above a whisper. She said she could not yawn or laugh and was in considerable pain. Her boys helped her move from one room to another.

Tuck-Webb, a mother of two, was at her home in East Baltimore yesterday, relatives said, adding that she did not want to talk about the accident. She could not be reached for comment.

Yesterday morning, Tuck got a call from Charles Crerand, vice president and general manager of Owings Mills Mall, who told her that the mall would investigate, she said. Crerand said he also contacted Tuck's daughter.

The sinkhole site resembled a construction project yesterday. Concrete jersey walls, orange cones and yellow caution tape warned mall shoppers to stay away. Construction workers lowered huge steel plates to stabilize sides of the hole. Crerand said his crews would not begin assessing the cause of the sinkhole until they were certain it was safe.

Edward C. Adams Jr., Baltimore County public works director, has said the underground pipes likely played a role in the sinkhole's formation.

The road and pipes beneath it were privately constructed and maintained, Adams said. But Crerand said lawyers were still researching the issue yesterday afternoon. State tax assessment maps appear to show that Owings Mills Mall, a subsidiary of the Rouse Co., owns the land where the sinkhole formed.

Before the accident, Crerand said, neither mall customers nor mall security, which he said regularly patrols the parking lot and adjoining roads, had reported any problems.

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