With only a thin crust of concrete separating their home from collapse into a great underground pit, 20 persons yesterday abandoned their houses in the 600 block East Clement Street.
The exodus began about 4 p.m. at the advice of police and building inspectors who found a deep black cavern instead of earth beneath the sidewalk.
The pit, believed at least 10 feet deep, stretched beneath the sidewalks in front of four homes, possibly more. Nobody had gone down to investigate.
Five Families Evacuated
Five families, totaling 30 men, women and children who occupy the neat, two-story rowhouses from 606 to 614 East Clement, left their homes, furniture and most of their clothing when police advised them they would risk death or injury if they stayed.
What the cavern was, nobody knew.
Some of the oldtimers thought it was part of a century-old tunnel that once ran from Fort McHenry to Federal Hill.
Others speculated it was an artesian well.
A building inspecter, who preferred to remain anonymous, had a more prosaic suggestion. He thought it was caused by a sewerage breakdown.
Face Cracks; Wall Falls
The first signs of danger appeared about 2 p.m. when a tiny crack broke out on the face of the house at 612. Quickly, it rippled diagonally upward, split through brick and mortar, and left a 7-foot zigzag scar across the house front.
Silently, a series of other cracks ran weblike across the red brick.
People on the sidewalk could see the window panes shudder.
In the cellar, a huge section of the front wall uttered a sigh and fell with a thud away from the house, dropping into a yawning subterranean pit. The house quivered again.
Two houses away, at 608, Mrs. Joseph Brokos went into her cellar to find a large piece of the floor had disappeared.
Where it had once been, there was only a yawning hole, about fifteen feet deep, eight feet across the mouth. When you leaned over, you could see water running across the bottom.
Though this came as something of a shock to Mrs. Brokos, it wasn't as surprising as it might have been.
The Sunday before, she'd gone into her cellar and found the furnace had sunk several inches into the floor.
Inside the houses from 608 to 614, more tiny cracks were breaking seams in living-room and dining-room walls and a fine snow of plaster fell from breaks in the ceilings.
Alarmed residents telephoned the Southern Police Station, and Sergt. Roland Fullem arrived on the scene, surveyed the damage and advised members of the six families to leave immediately for their own safety.
In the cellar at 612 the sergeant found a gaping hole 8 feet wide and 4 feet high, opening into the lightless underground chamber.
As far as he could see, he said, the cavern extended under the front sidewalk from 612 to 614.
One resident of the threatened area, Joseph Di Glovine, who lives at 610, said the first cracks had appeared in the block last week.
Street Is Closed
Since that time, he said, he had been shoring up cellar ceilings in the neighborhood and filling cracks. Di Glovine said there was another big cavern under the sidewalk in front of 606 and 608.
Neighbors said the building inspector's office had been notified last week, but had taken no action.
Sergeant Fullem ordered the sidewalk roped off along the entire north side of the block and closed the street to traffic.
Heads of the families who left their homes are Harry Clark, of 606; Joseph Brokos, of 608; Richard McKay, of 612, and John Garner, of 614.
"I Want To Be Close"
Most of the evacuated families moved in with their relatives.
One family -- Mr. Garner, his wife and five children -- took temporary shelter with their next-door neighbor, Joseph O'Keefe, a police officer.
"I want to be close in case anything happens," Mr. Garner said. His cellar floor, he added, was crisscrossed with cracking.
"It seems to be sinking," he lamented.
"I guess it's just bad luck, but I don't own the house, so it's not as bad on me as it is on the others."
Mrs. Brokos, who went into her house later last night to collect a few personal belongings, was crying.
The policeman who accompanied her watched uneasily, apparently afraid she would insist on staying.
Occupants Ordered Out
"Don't worry, officer," she managed. "I wouldn't stay here for all the money in the world tonight."
By last night, police had changed their request that the houses be abandoned to an order for all occupants to get out.
From Mr. Clark, who had retreated to his home after the first excitement died, came a protest.
"I'll fight for my rights," he declared, insisting he would stay the night.
Under police pressure, he left.
A bystander watching the men and their families leave their homes with their personal belongings commented:
"You sure feel sorry for these people being forced out, but it's the only thing to do."