Pittsburgh: A City of Unique Happenings

For some time now, my interests in topography, geography and volcanology have been growing in spades. My interests in geology and…gemology Is gemology a thing? *googles it:

“Gemology is the science of studying, cutting, and valuing precious stones, but the essence of gemology is in identifying the gemstones. One who works in the field of gemology is called a gemologist, and jewelers and goldsmiths also may be gemologists.” – source

Huh. Looks like it is! Well, I’ve loved gemology since childhood. It was my favorite part of any natural history museum. What kid doesn’t love something that sparkles and shines under intense lighting?

Why do I bring up all these separate studies? Because Pittsburgh is quite the interesting mix of topography and geography and geology, and I just wanted to highlight the others! These sciences have all been observed and studied here in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

From the earliest discoveries of coal in the 1740s to the State’s sweeping mountain ranges, my Commonwealth’s history is littered with notices of coal mine explosions, tunnel collapses, flooded canal systems and so much more. To look at modern events, one has to know how we got here. That’s what today’s post is all about. A look at modern history and what connections these events have to the past.

Pat Bus Meets Sinkhole

October 28, 2019

We Pittsburghers can take things very seriously: our politics, our people, our sports. We also take tragedy and joy seriously as well. This sinkhole could’ve had a very different outcome, as it happened during morning rush hour. However, there were very few injuries and no fatalities. Absolutely a miracle for the time of day when it happened.

But, while we take things quite seriously, we also can make fun of happenings like a pat bus in a sinkhole just as much.

Think of it: you’re commuting to work like normal when suddenly the ground opens up. You slam on your brakes, back up as the hole widens, and suddenly you’re staring at the roof of a pat bus sticking out of the ground.

Pennsylvania is no stranger to sinkholes. Being an industrial hub for decades, centuries even, there are forgotten tunnels, channeling waterways, old closed mines, and filled in valleys that have since seen development atop them.

Pittsburgh residents laughed about the Bus in the Sinkhole that entire year. So much so that local artists made all kinds of memorabilia to commemorate the occasion. Who would’ve thought that just a year later, we’d need that laugh to look back on as the world shut down in 2021?

Flooding from Hurricane Ida

August 31st to September 1st, 2021

All across this State of Pennsylvania, residents know the problems areas when it comes to floodplains and creek beds. Those who live in communities like Etna, Millvale and Carnegie are no strangers to the clean up drill, as Hurricane Ida threatened to repeat events from that of Hurricane Ivan (ironically another storm named with an “I”).

While Pittsburgh is famous for its picturesque views from Mt. Washington and the North Shore, true residents know it’s also infamous for just how quickly the city can flood. When I worked for Home Depot, I actually met a couple of the guys who work on the water control systems for some of the locks and dams. They’d come in to buy some replacement valves and such, and all they could talk about was the prior evening’s rain fall.

When one builds a city on a confluence, what else can they expect?

But, wherever people choose to set down their roots, we know that they’ll either love that place forever or choose to move away. Very few individuals from my own family live in other areas of the world. As we are quite a large group of Hartmans, many in the Southwestern PA region know at least someone from our clan.

Way back in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan hit, my church and I joined in the clean up efforts in Etna and Carnegie. Water lines showed how high the floods went, and mountains of ruined home goods lined the streets waiting for pick up.

Floodplain areas weren’t the only planes affected in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Major roadways felt the onslaught, even roadways like Bigelow Boulevard and McKnight Road. While the Ida wasn’t as bad as Ivan in 2004, it still cost considerable damage to the Pittsburgh region, a place one who isn’t a reside wouldn’t expect to be affected.

Fern Hollow Bridge Collapse

January 28, 2022

Just as the Pat Bus Sinkhole incident in 2019, the Fern Hollow Bridge Collapse made national news. So much so that newly elected President Biden paid a formal visit to the bridge collapse site. The irony? He was in town already to speak on America’s crumbling infrastructure (see the video of CNNs report).

The amazing part? Absolutely nobody died. Nobody. And the pat bus? Only the driver and one or two passengers were riding that morning. If this had been the Roberto Clemente Bridge or any other major throughways into the city, this would’ve been a very different headline indeed. Especially for a bridge whose design doomed it to become “fracture critical.”

From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “Rust corrosion so bad that there were holes in the steel support legs. A bridge deck so compromised by chlorides from winter salt that the concrete underside was decaying and water was seeping through to the steel below. Steel cross-beams “severed” from their connection to the support legs that hold up the bridge.”

And from wesa.fm: “When you see these photos, it’s pretty alarming,” says Sean Hamill, reporter with the Post Gazette. The report included about 90 color photos with images of rusted steel on the bridge, deteriorating concrete, and more.”

Why didn’t they temporarily close the bridge after that report? Why wasn’t the public made more aware? And why does it have to take something like an actual collapse for authorities to finally do something about it? While Frick Park is a bit out of my wheelhouse, Forbes Avenue is a major road that connects many neighborhoods to important businesses and hospitals until it hits the city of Pittsburgh itself.

Naturally, the Mothman Prophecies comparison was brought up in a joking manner at work that morning, but there were no recorded reports of seeing floating eyes or a flying man creature within the snow. All jokes aside, Pittsburgh’s infrastructure really does need work. Not just some work: a LOT of work. Now that I drive to multiple hospitals as part of a travel team on a weekly basis, I think about this quite often.

In this 1974 image of the bridge in question, you can see just how long it truly was. In an article from the site redhillsmsnews, an inspector is quoted, saying: “When a bridge reaches a 4 rating, it means there is advanced deterioration or section loss, but the primary structural components are still sound. A 3 rating means those structural components are starting to see deterioration, and a 2 or 1 rating means there are critical issues or an imminent failure of the structure is possible.”

In my humble opinion, a lot can happen to a bridge from the time of its inspection – in this case, as recent is 2021 – to the time a catastrophe occurs.

“When a bridge is added to the queue, it can be years before there’s funding to take care of those repairs, even if it’s added to the top of a state’s queue,” Hajjar said. “The engineers have been working to repair as much as they can. Safety and keeping safe bridges open is the goal, but the struggle is related to the insufficient funding that goes into repairing the aging infrastructure in this country, including bridges.”

source

From the looks of things, there is a very fine line between a bridge of “poor” condition, like Fern Hollow, and a bridge that needs immediate attention. People like to try and lay blame on any or all of the entities and parties concerned when it comes to Pittsburgh’s infrastructure, but it all boils down to this: How could they have possibly known this would happen that one snowy January morning?

“In Pennsylvania, the association’s report showed almost 3,200 bridges with a poor rating— a drop from five years ago of nearly 1,000 bridges. But more than 2,100 of those bridges have reached a level of deterioration requiring weight or traffic limits.”

source

One still has to wonder: How many more bridge collapses will it take for my fellow citizens to wake up and realize that allocating funds to infrastructure could be a life saving need?


From all the random news stories my local media can churn out on a daily basis to major breaking news, these are, in my humble opinion, the top topics of discussions from each year of the last three years.