Pit Stops on The Road Of Life
THE DAY BEFORE AGNES
It rained all day in York, Pennsylvania on Thursday, June 22, 1972. Heck, that was nothing new, not since a nasty lady named Agnes had worked her way north. She’d been born a "large disturbance" over the Yucatan Peninsula on June 14 but had donned the mantle of "Hurricane Agnes" the next day. As winds go, she was only a pale cousin to predecessors such as Betsy (Category 3 in 1965) or Camille (Category 5 in 1969.) Agnes never gained a title greater than Category 1 but, to my way of thinking, she should have been awarded the further title of The Queen Of Rain. By the time she passed York in southern Pennsylvania, she had long since diminished to a mere tropical storm. She had already wrought devastation all along the Eastern Seaboard but was yet to wreak her worst damage. Beginning in NY state, she merged with a non-tropical low on June 23. She then effectively squatted above the Chemung and Canisteo Rivers for several days, causing their swollen volumes to pour downstream into the Susquehanna River.
My co-workers and I knew little of those details while sitting in the Travel Lodge motel on North George Street in York on the 22nd. All we knew was that it was WET, so wet that we had been given the day off. We were bank examiners, Federal employees of the US Treasury Department. We’d been examining a bank on Continental Square in York since Monday; but on this Thursday, the bankers had conferred with their competitors and reached an agreement. All banks in the area would be closed that day. Severe local flooding had made roads so impassable that their customers couldn’t reach them. The bank officials had opened their vault long enough to re-set the time lock and then closed it, effectively keeping us from the records we needed to examine.
My co-workers and I were all young men in our mid-20’s so we passed the boring day sleeping or playing cards. We all lived in the Wilkes-Barre area further north so, from time to time we’d tune in a radio broadcast to see how the Susquehanna was doing up in Harrisburg. We needed to cross the I-83 bridge over the river at Harrisburg to get home. All day long we kept hearing that it was going to quit raining and that the river would crest at "xx feet" in Harrisburg. Getting home was the chief topic of conversation amongst us and we voiced the choice of leaving York that night. By 10 PM, my mind was made up—heavy rain was still pouring down and the river had gone ABOVE the predicted crest in Harrisburg. The one or two guys I thought were on my side chickened out but I clung to my decision. I told the boss I was leaving. He wasn’t very happy and said he’d report me to our Philadelphia HQ the next day. "Fine", said I, "I’ll call them, too. I never signed on to risk my life in a flood."
The 25 miles-or-so up I-83 to Harrisburg were uneventful and I found the bridge to be still intact. Suddenly, as I hit the north side of the bridge, all behind me was pitch black !! I could see no light at all in my rear-view mirror !! "Oh, those poor bastards behind me !!" was my thought, envisioning a line of traffic falling in the water. [As I later learned, the bridge never fell. What I’d seen was merely the lights going out. Concerned for my well being BEFORE I started my trip, the instantaneous darkness meant only one thing at the time—I was the last driver to survive the crossing.]
I ran into a problem just north of Harrisburg where Route 22 splits off to the East. The pitch-black night was filled with flashing lights and barricades. "No one is allowed to go further up 81", said a state trooper. "There are rock slides all over the place." I made a quick calculation and decided to head East on 22 to Allentown. From there I could catch the PA Turnpike up to Wilkes-Barre.
At the turnpike entrance I encountered two thoroughly soaked young sailors hitchhiking. Having been a hitchhiking sailor myself just a little over a year earlier, I stopped for them. Glad for the respite from the rain, they thanked me profusely. One was headed for Boston and the other for Newport, R. I. There was no let up in the downpour by the time we’d reached the Wilkes-Barre exit so I offered them a choice. "Look, if you don’t have to be back on ship by early in the morning you can come to my apartment and sleep for a few hours. I’ll bring you back to 81 in the morning." Having dried out a wee bit in my car, they were in no hurry to brave the elements again and both accepted my offer.
I lived on New Alexander Street in Wilkes-Barre, which runs between Carey Avenue and Old River Road. I suggested that we make a slight detour to River Street to take a look at the river and they agreed. Foolish young men all, we climbed the dike and, from the dim light cast by street lights along the River Commons, took a peek at the mighty Susquehanna. From what we could make out at 1:30 AM, the river needed to rise maybe another 6 feet before it would top the dike, so we felt secure. [In reality, the distance to the top of the dike was maybe only 3 feet but it didn’t occur to me to turn on my car radio to hear updates. We were extremely lucky. Had the dike given way when we were there, our bodies may have been found in the Chesapeake Bay.]
Mine was a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. One sailor won the coin toss and got to sleep on my couch while the other was assigned the floor. I had slept only 4 hours when I was awakened by the sound of a door slamming below my bedroom window. It was my downstairs neighbors, Gerry and Sylvia Missal, headed for the parking lot. I opened my window to query where they were headed. They responded with alarm. "Oh my God, Ron—we didn’t know you were home!! We’ve got to leave NOW!! The river’s coming !!" No sooner had Gerry uttered those words than the sound of sirens and bullhorns confirmed them. "Get out, get out NOW!! Don’t stop to pack—just LEAVE!! " cried the Wilkes-Barre police as they drove slowly down my street, cruiser lights flashing.
"Packing" was the farthest thing from my mind. I grabbed only the items I had just brought in from the car, one suitcase and a garment bag, and headed for the living room to awaken the sailors. The one on the floor was instantly awake but the one on the couch turned out to be the type that one almost has to kick to arouse. Even when he was semi-conscious, I found it nearly impossible to convince him that we were in great danger. I finally gave up and told him "Fine. Stay here. Steal everything I own but it won’t do you any good—you ARE going to drown !!" With that, he finally agreed to come with us.
Normally, I would have headed west because my Dad in Sweet Valley lived on the west side of the river. This would have meant crossing the Market Street bridge and I was not at all sure of the safety in doing that. I also owed it to the sailors to fulfill my promise that I’d take them back to 81 and that meant going east. We jumped in the car and went east. Traffic was a lot lighter than I expected, given that at least my entire section of South Wilkes-Barre was undoubtedly being evacuated. Perhaps others did stay to pack and we were lucky because we hadn’t. By the time we reached 81, I still hadn’t made a decision as to exactly where I’d go next, so I turned north up the interstate. Every mile I went took the sailors closer to their destinations. The city of Scranton, PA sits on the Lackawanna River and I’d heard nothing about it flooding so I chose to hole up there to think things through. I said goodbye to the sailors and they thanked me for my kindness.
I didn’t have a credit card in those days but I did have enough cash for a one-night stay in a motel so I chose the Jermyn Motor Inn. Normally, 6 AM is not a great check-in time but they felt sorry for a flood evacuee and waived their usual rules. I told them "You’re likely to meet a lot more folks in my situation today." I spent most of the next two and a half hours glued to the room’s clock radio listening to live broadcasts from Wilkes-Barre as the Susquehanna continued to threaten the dikes. I called my brother’s house and told his wife "Tell the old man I’m safe on the east side of the river and I’ll be home as soon as I can figure out how to get across." At 9 AM, I called my office in Philly to report that, yes, I had left the job last night and come home only to run smack dab into a flood. I wasn’t at all sure when I’d make it back to work. Had I NOT run into a flood, they probably would had royally chewed me out but they took pity on me and didn’t. They just said "OK, keep in touch." [As I write this, some 34 years later, I can’t for the life of me remember how many other fellow bank examiners were affected by Agnes. As I said, we all lived "in the Wilkes-Barre area", but some may have been far enough away from the river to have been spared.]
The radio gave out the worst possible news a little after 11 AM. To the wail of sirens in the background it was announced that the dikes had broken !! I felt tiny sigh of relief as I calculated that the police had given us a five-and-half hour warning. Hopefully, everyone had had time to escape. At worst, the number of deaths would be minimal. [Without researching farther, I believe the death toll was only one—a fellow who fell out of a boat. All the sandbaggers had fled the dikes safely.]
I spent the entire rest of Friday, June 23, 1972, listening to the radio and pondering my next move as the damage piled up. Dikes had broken on both sides of the river. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t think of a way to get to Sweet Valley. Going up river to Tunkhannock or down river to Berwick and Bloomsburg, nothing seemed to work, for as far as I knew, the bridges were in as bad a shape as Wilkes-Barre’s. [As previously stated, the Market Street bridge survived. I’m sure they had blocked off the Pierce Street bridge next to the Luzerne County Courthouse well BEFORE it sank. Due to extremely poor planning, the county’s civil defense headquarters had been located not only in the courthouse, but in the BASEMENT of the courthouse !! On the banks of the river, it had been one of the very first places evacuated.]
By Saturday morning I had the beginning of a plan. I headed back to Wilkes-Barre, found a phone booth, and looked up my neighbor Gerry Missal, who had evacuated slightly ahead of me. I recalled him telling me that his father lived "in the Heights" and I found a listing for a Missal on East Northampton Street. Yep, that street goes uphill—that must be "the Heights." I knocked on the door. Gerry opened it and exclaimed "Ron! What are you doing here?" "Looking for a place to hide out until the river goes down", I replied. I didn’t make it to Sweet Valley." "Come on in and join our little flood party" was his welcome response.
So much for "The Day Before Agnes." Stay tuned for "The Aftermath of Agnes."
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
cell phone (717) 309-1402