Thanks to a lucky lunch break - or was it the power of prayer? - the four dozen happiest people in Philadelphia were introduced to an envious public Friday as they claimed a Powerball jackpot worth $107.5 million in cash.
They filled rows of chairs at a late-morning news conference, telecast live from SEPTA headquarters. Most of them have worked for the transit agency for tenures of less than a year to 42 years. Ranging in age from 26 to 69, including some who were already retired, they vowed that no further media meet-and-greets would be granted.
"We are all in awe, we're excited, we're humbled, and we're grateful," said their designated spokesman, Bob Landgraf, who described the group, dubbed the SEPTA 48, as "as varied as the customer base we serve."
Actually, there were 49 winners, because two women split one of the $5 buy-ins.
Divided by 48, a share of the prize comes to $2.24 million, before taxes of course. The two split shares are each worth about $1.12 million. The annuity prize, which would have been paid out in 30 yearly installments, was $172.7 million.
Hunger played a role in where the 120 $2 tickets were purchased, said Bryant Vaders, one of the pool organizers.
Pamela Schurgot, who meticulously keeps the group's records, didn't want to go far to buy her lunch, so she and Vaders went across Market Street to the Gallery. She wanted chicken. He'd brought his lunch.
"And I thought to myself, do I want to stand here and smell the chicken while I've got a salad?" So he decided to go buy their quick-pick tickets at a new place, the Newsstand there.
Late that night, the numbers came up 4, 25, 29, 34 and 43, with a Powerball of 29.
About 1 p.m. the next day, Landgraf's wife shot him a text asking if their pool bought the tickets at the Gallery.
Landgraf showed the text to Vaders, who answered yes.
Schurgot checked her photocopied pages of tickets. First page, no jackpot winner. Second page, she saw two Powerballs. First one, no jackpot. "The second one, I'm like, '4 . . . 25 . . . 29 . . . Oh my God! . . . 34 . . . Oh my God! Oh my God! . . . We won! We won!'" Schurgot related.
It was Pennsylvania's 15th Powerball win. Only once was the jackpot bigger, the $110 million cash won in 2004 by a ticket sold in Bucks County. Philadelphia's last Powerball haul was in October 2008, when 22 postal workers shared $10.3 million.
Twenty minutes after his wife's text, said Landgraf, "there were shouts, laughter . . . I saw grins, wide eyes, some filled with tears like I never saw before."
"My story is about survivorship and surprise," said Marylouise Wagner, who missed a lot of work battling "aggressive stage-three breast cancer." In January, she had another operation to remove a benign mass from her heart, and finally returned to work on April 10.
After thanking her supportive coworkers, she shared this message: "Don't ever give up, because you never know what's right around the corner."
Then a longtime employee's remarks got laughs when he said, "When I look at the light at the end of the tunnel, it's no longer a Regional Rail train."
Another winner, Larry Green, said that his wife died a year and day before the lottery drawing. The day before the drawing, her memory was honored at a Mass. "I prayed for a lottery win, and I prayed to certain saints," he said. So "never doubt the power of prayer," he told the crowd of reporters, SEPTA officials and less lucky colleagues.
Matt Sheridan, 26 and a colleague, almost missed out. Sheridan was off the Friday before, taking his family to the zoo, so he asked a colleague to contribute for him. On Monday, after a meeting, he ran upstairs to check. No, sorry, said the coworker. "Want to get in?" Sheridan asked. The other fellow declined, then relented when Sheridan pointed out he owed the guy some money.
"When we found out," Sheridan said, "he ran over and gave me a hug, and said, 'I wanted to kiss you, but . . . ' " Another round of laughter.
A brother and his sister, a recent SEPTA retiree, each won, said Landgraf, because the brother bought her a share without asking.
"She, of course, did not believe him," he said. "She does now."