A RIVER ROSE up from beneath 52nd Street in West Philly yesterday morning and rushed down in the dark toward Wyalusing Avenue, where it plunged into the basement of a dive bar, swamped both of Robert Johnson's rides to work, and came to rest at the front steps of Alma Cummings' rowhouse on Paxon Street.
No one was killed or injured when the massive, 130-year-old water-transmission line burst on 52nd Street near Pennsgrove Street, but 8 to 10 million gallons can ruin a Sunday in a hundred different ways, and the ripples of inconveniences could already be felt after the waters receded, locals said.
"Look at my car, it's done. I can't call to set up a ride for work because the power is off, and I can't charge my phone," Wyalusing Avenue resident Albery Canty said, motioning to his muddy Cadillac.
Johnson, 68, was supposed to be in South Jersey working on a customer's bathroom and instead was sitting on his front porch complaining about federal infrastructure funding, while a worker readied a water pump and generator beside his basement window. The hoods were propped up on his pickup truck and his minivan, the mud drying to dirt in the heat, and he doesn't know how long he'll be out of work.
"If you come here tomorrow, I'll probably be sitting in the same spot," Johnson said.
Electricity was cut off on some blocks for safety reasons, and residents struggling with the heat were offered a seat on a SEPTA bus a few blocks away.
On Paxon Street, resident Diane Hall had a freezer full of meat thawing a week before her Father's Day barbecue, and she rattled off all that she'd lose if she couldn't transfer it to her daughter's freezer nearby.
"I've got steaks, chicken, ribs, beef," she said, smacking her leg with box of plastic wrap after every word. "It's all melting."
The Philadelphia Fire Department responded to the neighborhood with dozens of firefighters at approximately 5:15 a.m. and had to evacuate 14 people. Other neighborhood residents were told to move to the upper floors as a precaution, and the water was finally shut off around 8 a.m.
Al Brown, 45, said his dog woke him, and the sound of the geyser outside his home on 52nd Street made him think it was raining. Instead, he looked out the window to see a sinkhole swallowing his daughter's Nissan Altima. His daughter, Talia Simpson, had driven to Philly from Augusta, Ga., earlier that week to attend a family graduation.
"We've already talked to a city claims adjuster, but I'm not sure how she's going to get back and what she'll drive when she gets there," Brown said as a trio of Philadelphia Parking Authority tow trucks yanked the soggy car from the pit.
Dozens of other cars were flooded out, many of them sitting along the curb with their hoods and doors open.
At a brief news conference on 52nd Street, Debra McCarty, Deputy Commissioner of Operations of the Philadelphia Water Department, said the 36-inch water main dates back to 1885, and it was unclear what caused it to rupture. Pipes are inspected regularly, she said.
"This one got away from us," McCarty said.
Mayor Nutter, who toured the asphalt wetlands and spoke with residents, said the city is constantly doing assessments of the water lines and often the process of taking out older water lines is disruptive to neighborhoods.
"One of the wonderful things about Philadelphia is that it's a great, old city, and one of the challenges of Philadelphia is that it's a great old city," Nutter said.
Residents all said they recall one or two other epic water main breaks in the area, including one in 2004 at 52nd and Poplar that forced patrons of Smitty's Mill Creek Tavern into boats. That main was a 48-incher.
Yesterday, the Mill Creek Tavern had water to the top of the basement. It was open, manager Anita Lewis said, but there were few footprints heading inside from the mud.
A few buildings down, Johnson said he expected more water main breaks, train crashes and bridge collapses, claiming the "feds have their priorities all out of whack."
"You know how many jobs there could be fixing the American infrastructure?," he asked. "Instead, I'm sitting here with no way to get to work."