A section of Baltimore’s East 26th Street above a rail line through Charles Village partially buckled and sank amid heavy rain Monday, sparking concerns about a potential repeat of the dramatic collapse of a nearby block in 2014.
The failing retaining wall that holds 26th Street above the train tracks between North Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue prompted the city to close that block Monday and railroad CSX Transportation to halt train operations, though nearby residents were not evacuated.
By Monday evening, heavy machinery had begun removing the sidewalk and dismantling the retaining wall as crews worked to stabilize the area. Busy Calvert Street, between 25th and 27th streets, also was closed for use as a staging area through at least the Tuesday morning commute, said Kathy Dominick, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
“Once this area is secured, plans for a new wall will be developed and CSX can resume operations along the rail line,” Dominick said in a statement. “Inspectors will be onsite 24 hours a day to monitor conditions in this vicinity.”
Some residents voiced frustration with the sinking street, questioning whether city officials had appropriately monitored and inspected the street and the retaining wall, as they promised they would after the last collapse.
City officials could not say Monday when the area was last inspected.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, who spoke briefly at the scene Monday afternoon, said engineers would remain there to keep neighbors informed as progress is made in repairing the street.
“It's probably going to be a number of days before this is done. We remain optimistic," she said. "I know we’ve got the right people on the scene right now looking at this."
Pugh did not answer questions as to what steps were taken to assess the wall’s integrity after the 2014 collapse, though neighbors saw city crews using ground-penetrating radar on the block in the days afterward.
The site of Monday’s activity is two blocks east of the block between St. Paul and North Charles streets, known as Pastel Row for its colorful rowhouses, where residents saw their entire streetscape — sidewalk, light posts, asphalt roadway and parked vehicles — collapse onto its own retaining wall and tumble into the train tracks below in April 2014.
That collapse was captured on cellphone video that went viral around the world, putting the state of Baltimore’s infrastructure under a spotlight.
Engineers later determined that intense rains had undermined the stability of a stone wall that was more than 100 years old.
The sinking on Monday follows heavy rainfall as well. Downpours on Saturday made this the wettest November on record in Baltimore, in what is already its wettest year on record. More rain fell through Monday afternoon.
Some residents said they were bracing for a full collapse — and criticized city officials for failing to learn from the mistakes that led to the 2014 collapse.
“It’s just frustrating, because obviously somebody has not done their due diligence and done these inspections,” said Jeff Larry, who lives in one of two homes that line the short block. “Nobody really thought that this should be an area that should be looked at constantly? Again?”
Larry said the city had replaced a portion of the retaining wall on his block in the 1990s, but not the portion where the sidewalk had collapsed Monday. He said he has noticed problems in more recent years — such as a tree on the block buckling the sidewalk — but figured the city was on top of it given the calamity of 2014.
“I was sort of under the belief that, well, they're keeping an eye on this and if there's a problem they'll deal with it,” he said. “But I guess that wasn't happening.”
After the 2014 collapse, then-city transportation director William Johnson said, “We're going to have a whole different level of focus on looking at these structures on a regular basis.”
The transportation department was looking into which retaining walls in the area had been inspected since the 2014 collapse, said German Vigil, another transportation department spokesman.
“I know we started several assessments, but I’m not sure exactly which ones,” he said at the scene Monday.
Officials said three people had called the city about the roadway Monday morning, describing it as caving in.
Devin Brown said he often walks with his children along the portion of sidewalk that was collapsing to a nearby playground. He said he noticed the sidewalk was buckling slightly this weekend but said it had gotten significantly worse by Monday morning.
Max Romano, who lives nearby on Guilford Avenue, said he first noticed a problem on Sunday afternoon, as he walked home from Sunday school with his two young daughters. He took a picture that he would later send to the Baltimore 311 line: The street had detached from the curb and sidewalk by several inches.
“We walk that block several times a week and there was definitely a change yesterday,” he said.
Romano said when he was woken by the sound of a train passing on Monday morning, he was reminded of the gap in the ground and thought, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.”
Later Monday morning, city officials closed the street and towed vehicles left there to the 2600 block of Calvert. In addition to crews from the city transportation department and CSX, officials from the public works, police and fire departments and the city’s Office of Emergency Management were on the scene, as was city Councilman Robert Stokes Sr., who said he’d been told there was a crack in the retaining wall.
David McMillan, the city's emergency management director, said the sidewalk that lines a metal fence along the top of the retaining wall had detached from the street by about a foot by Monday afternoon, but engineers trying to assess the retaining wall’s integrity were unable to get close enough to measure how far down the sidewalk had sunk because the ground was too unstable.
“It’s continuing to shift,” he said Monday afternoon.
Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association, which represents the neighborhood, said he also was alerted to the sinking by a neighbor Monday morning.
"Obviously people are concerned, because when this happened in 2014, all those houses that were on that block were really adversely affected,” he said. “We had to do a fundraising drive because people couldn’t pay their bills.”
After the 2014 collapse, residents of 19 homes were evacuated, and couldn’t return home for more than a month as their street was stabilized. The city provided them with food, housing and transportation assistance.
Many said they had long complained to the city about the street slowly sinking, but had been ignored. And 20 families sued the city and CSX after the collapse, eventually winning a $1.2 million settlement.
Construction to repair the wall lasted more than a year and cost an estimated $12 million to $13 million, which the city and CSX eventually agreed to split.
The collapse also interrupted the CSX freight business along the tracks, but only briefly — drawing the ire of residents who were forced from their homes for far longer.
City officials could not offer a timeline for when the repairs to this portion of 26th Street might be completed. Dominick asked motorists to “use alternate routes away from this area for the next several days” to avoid delays.
Cross said the lack of clarity around the latest damage was concerning.
“You don't know how extensive the damage is, what it means for people's foundations and the like,” he said.
And he said the fact that the neighborhood appeared to be experiencing a sinking city street yet again — two blocks from a similar incident just four years ago — is unacceptable.
“The assurance that we all received in 2014 was that this had been rectified for that whole stretch, that we wouldn’t have any more issues with this,” Cross said. “We can’t go through this every few years where we have portions of it collapsing and people never being sure if they can park their cars on the street for fear that they might end up on the train tracks.
“I don’t know where the city or CSX or the state is on this, but it just seems to me that there needs to be a more comprehensive approach to that entire stretch,” he said. “We just have a real crisis around the modernization of our infrastructure in the city.”