A nearly 120-year-old retaining wall that has troubled Charles Village residents for decades collapsed Wednesday amid a month's worth of rain, dumping street lights, sidewalks and half a dozen cars onto the CSX rail tracks below.
No injuries were reported. City officials evacuated 19 adjacent homes along East 26th Street and urged residents to avoid the area in case of lingering instability.
The landslide halted CSX rail traffic through what is a main artery to the port of Baltimore. The track carries cargo containers handled by rail at the state's Seagirt Marine Terminal, a substantial economic engine for the region.
"My eyes were just riveted on the road and the railing just falling away," said Charles Village resident Dana Moore, who was driving north on Charles Street as the embankment collapsed. "It was there and then it wasn't."
The rain meanwhile flooded streams, closed roads and prompted rescues across the region.
Signs of trouble appeared on 26th Street early Wednesday afternoon as the rain fell.
Jeff Larry said he was picking up his daughter from school around 2:30 p.m. when he noticed that the street looked more unsettled than usual. When he got home a couple of blocks away, Larry said he called 311 and reported what he saw.
"You could just see that things were going bad — it was a pretty significant shift in the ground," Larry said. "What I saw was actual cracks in the pavement, cracks where the pavement had dropped six inches and split open. … A lot of the cars were on a much more significant lean than they usually were."
The 311 operator said she would let her supervisor know, Larry said.
"I really stressed to them this could be something bad, especially with the kids getting out of school," he added.
Later in the afternoon, Jim Zitzer was looking out his bedroom window on 26th Street when he saw cars parked across the street start to tilt toward the tracks below. By the time he put on his jacket and got out to his front steps, they tumbled some 30 feet below.
"My wife and I haven't been parking on that side of the street for years because we knew it was going to happen," said Zitzer, a retired engineer who said he had noticed a crack running parallel to the sidewalk nearly the length of the block.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said city engineers were investigating the cause of the collapse, evaluating the stability of the homes on the street and making arrangements for any residents who were displaced. North Charles, St. Paul and East 26th streets remained closed Wednesday night.
Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, at St. Paul and 26th streets, will be closed Thursday.
"We're extremely blessed that we're talking about property damage and not any loss of life," Rawlings-Blake said.
The mayor's office is in the process of reviewing "all of the maintenance records and past history" of the retaining wall, spokesman Kevin Harris said.
"A lot of the questions that members of the public are asking are the same questions the mayor is asking," Harris said.
CSX officials said Thursday morning in a statement it is "working around the clock in Baltimore to support fast and full recovery" from the collapse.
"The company's primary focus is on the well being of area residents, especially those who had to leave their homes, on first responders and other agencies, and on restoring customer service," the statement said. "Working with local authorities, assessments of the embankment collapse continue and there are no immediate estimates on the resumption of customer service."
As crews surveyed the damage, Nels Schumacher stood in the rain on 26th Street and watched, helpless, as his station wagon sank lower and lower.
He had arrived at his home on the street not long before a neighbor came banging on the door about 3:45 p.m., yelling, "Your car is sinking!"
Schumacher said it started slowly, the sidewalk and street moving inch by inch — until the sidewalk, a chunk of the street and a retaining wall fell with a "whoosh" onto the CSX tracks. As many as six cars appeared to have gone down with the street, including Schumacher's 1997 Saturn station wagon, which lay upside-down on the tracks.
"There was nothing I could do," the 32-year-old University of Baltimore student said.
At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, more than 2 inches of rain fell Wednesday through 6 p.m. Since rain began Monday night, 4.18 inches fell at the airport, an inch more than normal for the full month of April.
That could make it Baltimore's wettest April on record. The monthly tally at BWI was expected to surpass 8 inches for only the third time on record. The most rain measured in April in Baltimore was 8.7 inches in 1889.
Geologists said the Charles Village event should likely not be considered a sinkhole. Sinkholes are natural phenomena that occur when the Earth's surface collapses on top of spaces where rocks have eroded away.
But landslides are common when rain or burst pipes wash away dirt underground, said Richard Ortt, director of the Maryland Geological Survey.
"This happens all the time," Ortt said. "Lots of [water] at great velocity will erode the dirt."
Since at least the 1990s, neighbors have expressed concerns with the integrity of the wall, noting that the sidewalks along 26th Street were sinking. After a cave-in near 26th Street and Guilford Avenue in January 1994, city and CSX officials sparred over who bore responsibility for repairs.
CSX officials said Wednesday that they did not have information about the issue, but were looking into it. The railroad was also busy dealing with an explosive derailment in Lynchburg, Va.
Concerning the collapse in Baltimore, CSX said it was "working closely with authorities to assess damage, assure public safety and determine next steps and will provide updates."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he first called on CSX to address its failing infrastructure in the area of the collapse nearly two decades ago, when he took a seat on the council and local residents showed him where the ground was sinking along East 26th Street.
He said he organized volunteers to clean trash and debris, which CSX helped with, but the railroad didn't come into Baltimore to do a thorough inspection of all its decaying overpasses and retaining walls. On Wednesday night, he called on the company to do so now — and clean up the mess left behind by the collapse of the wall.
"They have to really do a structural survey of all of these overpasses and do something about it before we have another one of these. I'm just so glad nobody got killed," Young said. "The railroad got their start right here in Baltimore — the B&O; — and they just seem to have forgotten their roots. ... I want them to step up to the plate."
Young said he remembers the city determining back in the late 1990s that the retaining walls along the railroad and East 26th Street were the responsibility of CSX.
Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, said that particularly with older pieces of infrastructure, there can often be "ambiguity" over ownership and responsibility for upkeep. "If there's not a clear owner, then sure, there should be some sort of arrangement" for how to pay for repairs, he said. "We shouldn't wait until something collapses."
Elsewhere around the state, the deluge caused widespread travel headaches and hazards.
Two men were rescued after passing signs and barricades blocking a road closure at Whiskey Bottom Road and Brock Bridge Road near Laurel, Anne Arundel County fire spokesman Chief Keith Swindle said. A woman was rescued from a vehicle at Old Valley and Greenspring Valley roads in Stevenson, Baltimore County officials said. No injuries were reported.
In North Baltimore, city emergency management officials evacuated shoppers from the Whole Foods supermarket and other businesses in Mount Washington Village over concerns about the Jones Falls flooding.
The surge of groundwater caused a basement wall to collapse in the 100 block of Bon Aire Avenue in Brooklyn Park, flooding the basement and forcing residents to relocate after engineers condemned the property, Swindle said.
Flooding headaches were expected to continue into Thursday. In downtown Annapolis, Compromise, Newman and Dock streets were closed for much of the day, and police told residents to expect that to continue through Thursday morning's high tide.
Larger rivers like the Patapsco and the Severn could be expected to remain under flood warnings into Thursday as the surge of precipitation flushes its way into the Chesapeake, said Jason Elliott, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.
"Some of the larger rivers will still be flooded into tomorrow," Elliott said Wednesday. The smaller ones are already starting to come down."
Once chances for showers clear out by early Thursday morning, a return to pleasant spring weather is expected. Mostly cloudy skies and highs in the mid-70s are forecast Thursday, with partly cloudy skies and highs around 70 degrees expected through the weekend.
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.