Before landslide, residents struggled to describe sinking street to 911 operators
By By Kevin Rector and The Baltimore Sun
May 08, 2014 at 6:58 PM
With the street buckling in front of her, Evelyn Cannon called 911 as cars teetered and then began to sink, their wheels becoming less and less visible.
But Cannon felt unable to convey the gravity of the situation, she said. About 45 seconds into the call, when the operator asked her if anything was damaged, Cannon became exasperated.
"The street is damaged," she said into her phone, in one of nearly a dozen 911 recordings released Thursday by the Baltimore Fire Department. "I know this sounds crazy."
The collapse last week of a retaining wall holding East 26th Street in Charles Village above a railroad line started slowly, the street subsiding before finally giving out. Several residents and passers-by watched the shift as it occurred, and some called 911.
When they got through to emergency operators, according to recordings of their conversations, some had trouble explaining what they were seeing.
Since the calls related to street damage, 911 operators transferred some of them to the nonemergency 311 line, a resource for reporting potholes and everyday problems, not disasters.
Some called from home, trying to keep their emotions in check, while others were moving around the neighborhood, trying to warn others — partly out of the fear that emergency dispatchers weren't taking them seriously.
"It was extremely difficult," said Erica McCullough, whose voice appears in two of the released recordings.
McCullough, a single mother who has lived on the now-collapsed block of East 26th for 13 years, said she was trying to control her emotions as she made the call. She is the same woman caught screaming on a video of the collapse that went viral and was shared around the world.
Seeing and hearing her own reactions to the landslide, McCullough said, brings all the emotions back.
"For me, the whole thing has been extremely emotional," she said. "I've been through a lot on that block, so when you hear that scream or you hear whatever's on that 911 tape, it's me realizing that my whole entire life is possibly going under."
Cannon called 911, frantic to get emergency personnel to the scene, she said, and less than a minute later seemed frustrated with an operator as she counted the vehicles that she correctly predicted would tumble onto CSX Transportation railroad tracks beneath the street.
"There are probably about one, two, three, four, five, six, seven — seven or eight parked cars that are sunk so far that … there's no way they could ever be driven out," Cannon said.
"On the street. OK. Is anybody hurt?" the operator asked.
"No, nobody is hurt, but I can just tell you, it's sinking," Cannon said. "It's going so fast the children had enough sense when they were walking on the sidewalk to say, 'Let me get off of this because it is sinking in.' "
"No," Cannon said, louder. "It is the street that's separating. It's like, I mean, as in like two or three feet of separation from the street; as in the street is up and two or three feet are down into the ground."
Ian Brennan, a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman, said city dispatchers all ask the same series of questions designed at a national level to "ensure the safety of fire responders and others, so that we make sure we send the right people to an incident."
Sometimes residents can get "miffed" with repetitive questioning from dispatchers who seem as if they don't understand information that's being shared, possibly delaying a response, Brennan said. But dispatchers are releasing information as they get it — sometimes to responders already en route to an incident — and are simply following protocols to collect more information, he said.
"We understand that it's frustrating sometimes from the other side, because people just want to say, 'There's a sinkhole, come,' boom and be done in two questions, but we're looking for more information," he said.
On Thursday, Cannon said she felt that the operators were listening to her and trying to understand, but that she was still probably a little "pushy" on the phone — she also called 311 — because she feared she wasn't conveying how urgent the situation was.
"I'd taken pictures, and I really wished there was a way that I could have sent the pictures," she said. "It was not a matter of them not believing me — it's just I didn't know how to send them the pictures, and that's really what I needed to do."
Though residents can submit photos to 311, they can't to 911, officials said.
At one point, Cannon said, she and another man ran across the street to Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, begged their way in, and warned staff at the front desk. The staff told the principal, but Cannon said she again feared that nothing was being done.
Back outside, an adult came out of the school to look at the street, "and said, 'Oh, my,' " Cannon said. "So I said, 'OK, go back in and tell the principal what you saw,' because we wanted another 911 call to be made."
In all, 11 calls came in to 911 operators, according to the Fire Department, all before the collapse. Brennan said there were no calls after the collapse because police and fire officials were already on the scene.
A police officer was first dispatched to the scene at 3:36 p.m., arrived at 3:39 p.m., and first reported a major collapse at 3:47 p.m., Brennan said. The first fire unit was dispatched at 3:47 p.m.
At least two residents, including McCullough, made multiple calls, urging officials to respond quickly. Some residents also mentioned that they had long been asking the city to address problems with the street.
"The entire street is caving in. We've been waiting for this for a couple years," said a caller who identifies herself as Leona Truelove, a resident of the street.
"All right, ma'am, stay with me. Let me transfer you to 311," the 911 operator said.
Truelove could not be reached for comment.
In one of her calls, McCullough stressed that somebody needed to respond to block off the street immediately.
"The south side of our street is literally caving in. There are about five cars that are sinking into the CSX line pretty much right now, and we need a police officer or somebody to come and put caution tape and block it off until something can happen," she said. "We've already had five or six neighbors call in to 311 and it, I mean, if anybody walks on that side of the street right now, it looks like it's going to be a sinkhole."
"OK, stay on the line one moment," the operator said.
"Oh, my God," McCullough says. "Thank God we didn't park on that side of the street."
In another recording, McCullough described the emotional toll.
"It's literally caving in. This is the saddest thing I've ever seen," she said. "I've been here for 13 years, and I've never seen anything like this before in my life. Oh, my God."
Matt Bradby, a program manager for the Charles Village Benefits District and another 911 caller, took his time trying to explain that, although he and others were trying to keep people away from the street, more help was needed.
"The rain got that thing sinking slowly. I mean, I'm saying cars are actually about to slide into the railroad track off the bridge," he said. "Man, I've been working with the City Council trying to get this thing done, but now it's done. It's done."
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Bradby said Thursday that others in the neighborhood had told him their 911 experience was "hectic," but his was a "smooth process" — and Brennan pointed to Bradby's call as an example of how operators dispatch information while remaining on the line.
When the first fire unit was dispatched, it didn't have word from police of the collapse, but Bradby was still on the line with 911. About two minutes into Bradby's call, he told the dispatcher that he could hear the street "buckling." The operator responded, "I'm trying to get it out as soon as I can."
And he did.
Brennan said the fire unit en route to the scene received an update from the 911 operator at 3:49 p.m., warning them of the buckling street. They arrived two minutes later, just as Bradby was hanging up with the operator, and reported back: A major landslide had occurred.