HOLMBERG: The monster sinkhole from Gaston, 10 years later

Posted at 12:33 PM, Aug 22, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-22 12:33:55-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As far as Richmond is concerned, it was the mother of all sinkholes.

The corner of E. Grace Street and S. 31st Street just dropped like a plate falling in slow motion after tropical storm Gaston dumped 12-and-a-half inches on the River City ten years ago, on August 29, 2004.

Two Dodge Caravans and a Ford Mustang convertible plunged nearly three stories with the street, coming to rest pretty much like they had been parked, with little damage.

“They were fine once we got them out of there,” said the vehicles’ owner, Jennifer Branch.

What wasn’t fine was her home.

Her house itself was fine, but inspectors were concerned about her yard moving, so Branch, her daughter and son had to move out of their own home. Other neighbors were able to show their yards were stable and avoided having their homes condemned.

But part of Branch’s yard was down in the hole, so she had to move out - for four years.

She wound up renting a place nearby. She didn’t qualify for emergency funds and her insurance turned her down because her home was fine and that bit of her yard was consumed by the equivalent of an earthquake.

But she still feels blessed. “I guess it could have been much worse.”

It was supposed to take a year to restore that corner with the $3.5 million FEMA gave to the city to fix it.

Four years later, Branch was able to move back in.

She and her 17-year-old daughter, Myra, (7 at the time) shared with us what it was like that night 10 years ago.

“We were actually in bed when it happened,” said Jennifer Branch, a registered nurse. “I just happened to look out the window and saw the cars at a funny angle. So I opened the door and I could just smell gas and see that the cars were going down.”

She woke up her daughter and sister (her son was working in the Bottom) and they rushed out of the home, pounding on neighbors’ doors to get them out before the neighborhood exploded or fell into the hole.

Myra remembers being rushed out of the house, afraid and crying.

Watch the video report and see the rest of their story.

So what happened on that corner that rainy night?

Here are two stories I wrote about the hole and its aftermath.

Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)-September 2, 2004

A Mark Holmberg Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

The infamous Church Hill Train Tunnel has consumed men, a train and plenty of real estate, but it can't be fingered for Monday's collapse of a half-block of Church Hill at 31st and Grace streets.

When that hunk of Grace Street dropped 20 feet straight down during the 10-inch deluge from the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston, the specter of the nearby killer train tunnel beckoned.

"It's got to have something to do with that tunnel," Richmond Vice Mayor Delores McQuinn said Tuesday as she stood on the brink of the startling collapse.

Several other sightseers and nearby residents voiced the same suspicion, as did callers to The Times-Dispatch.

Even city engineers were considering the tunnel theory.

"I don't think they've drawn any conclusions, but I know it's been discussed as a possibility," Public Works spokesman Bill Farrar said Tuesday.

After all, the ill-fated tunnel has been like a writhing snake beneath Church Hill for 132 years. A dozen men died while tunneling through the shifty, soapy, blue marl clay in 1872 and 1873. A spectacular cave-in on Jan. 14, 1883 saw an entire house somersault into the gaping maw.

On Oct. 2, 1925, the tunnel collapsed on a work train and its crew, burying Locomotive 231, 10 flat cars, the engineer, fireman and at least one laborer.

In 1926, the tunnel was filled with sand and plugged with concrete at both ends.

But the fill sand settled, a Times-Dispatch exploration showed in 1998. Sections of the tunnel have collapsed in recent years, gobbling a tennis court and tilting a few homes above the 4,000 foot tunnel.

But the collapse at 31st and Grace is a full 100 yards east of the entrance to the tunnel.

And down in the flood-ravaged, landslide-clogged ravine, where trains once whistled, the arched tunnel entrance remains defiantly and undeniably intact.

When all else around it was losing its grip, the snaky tunnel held its ground - for once.

The apparent culprit may involve the same slippery soil that made the tunnel such a nightmare.

And there are numerous portions of Church Hill that were leveled off with fill dirt long ago so homes and streets could be built, city building official Claude Cooper has explained in the past.

That's why so many homes have the Church Hill Lean.

Roland Rackett, 89, remembers seeing city garbage trucks routinely dumping into two depressions in the train tunnel ravine sometime before 1925.

Jane Boone, who lives a block away on East Broad Street, remembers learning to roller skate 60 years ago in the area of Monday's collapse. It's her understanding that the part of the ravine bearing the street had been built up with fill dirt.

On Monday, that ground clearly couldn't withstand the hydraulic pressure from a river's worth of rain rushing off the Hill into the ravine leading to the tunnel.

"You could feel the movement in the ground from the rush of water coming down Broad Street," she said.

Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)-August 28, 2005
Author: Mark Holmberg Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

As a real estate broker, Bill O'Connor noticed some positives when his Church Hill through street was turned into a dead end by the storm-washed sinkhole that gobbled an entire intersection last August.

"It does have its benefits," he acknowledged yesterday as he stood in front of his house at 3102 E. Grace St., which overlooks the acre-sized sinkhole that claimed the 31st Street intersection.

His view of South Richmond and the parklike ravine in front of his house were improved somewhat by the sinkhole. There's no passing traffic. He can park in the middle of what's left of the street.

That said, O'Connor has had enough of that sinking feeling.

"I just want to get it back to the way it was before," O'Connor said somewhat wearily. "It has been a real slow process. A lot of red tape -- a bunch of red tape."

Plus, the sinkhole seen 'round the world has been "a major tourist attraction," noted O'Connor, 38. People come day and night to gaze into the pit made famous by an aerial photograph taken by Times-Dispatch photographer Mark Gormus.

People even come by limousine. He found out last Christmas that people on the tacky Christmas lights tour had added a black-hole pit stop on Grace Street.

Plus, there was the little matter of his home, and the homes of some of his neighbors, being condemned by the city after the street and ground near their homes dropped some 20 feet during the historic deluge.

The family next door, who lost some of its yard, had to move to another house in the area. But O'Connor said he and two other neighbors successfully fought their condemnations by spending several thousand dollars on soil tests that proved their homes sat on solid ground.

The tests confirmed what older Church Hill residents said after the storm: The sinkhole site had previously been part of the adjoining deep ravine, but it had been filled in long ago. So, in essence, the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston returned that hunk of land to its original elevation, O'Connor said.

A good amount of work has already been done. Dangling sections of pavement were cut off. The clifflike edges of the hole were angled back and packed down to help stabilize the area. Earth cut from those edges helped partly level off the bottom of the hole.

Next month, work is scheduled to begin on a roughly 200-foot-long retaining wall that will stretch from the area in front of O'Connor's home to the eastern edge of the athletic courts on the opposite side of the sinkhole.

Manbhupinder Khara, administrator of capital projects for Richmond's Department of Public Works, explained that the approximately 30-foot-tall "soldier pile wall" will be made of steel beams pounded deep into the ground and backed by concrete planks.

Then the sinkhole will be topped off with boulders and other compacted fill so the streets can be rebuilt. New sewer and power lines will also have to be laid.

O'Connor had to deed some of his land beneath his front yard to the city for tieback anchors to hold the retaining wall in place. He said the money from that deed will reimburse him for the soil tests, "so it's pretty much a wash."

Khara, who is sort of Mr. Gaston Restoration for the city, said it has taken a full year to get ready to start the repair because construction bids had to go out twice. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying for the project -- roughly $3.5 million. Khara estimates it will take eight to nine months to complete the work, depending on the weather.

When it's finally over, O'Connor and his neighbors will have lost their dead end -- and that sinking feeling.

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