Sunday, April 18, 2010

The West Portal Tunnel Calamity

Entrances to Hell in San Francisco #866

As indicated earlier in this series, those unfortunate riders who are condemned to surrender themselves daily to the foul grasp of the San Francisco Muni have ample reason to project it as a particularly truculent manifestation of hellishness. Who amongst us has not experienced the manifold perils and indignities suffered on board the J-Lurch, or died of boredom on the N-Judas as it treacherously and glacially makes its lonesome way to Ocean Beach, or paused to observe one’s fingernails grow while waiting for the 19-Polk-a-long bus line to show up? And which of us can restrain feelings of sincerest sympathy with those compelled to place their physical economies at risk while riding the 22-Feel More?

But the quiet scene pictured above at Market and Collingwood bears silent witness to a far more sinister history. One week in 1971 the police were deluged with reports of missing persons who, expected home for dinner by their spouses, disappeared without notice during the evening rush hour. The police were called in and quickly established that the missing commuters were daily patrons of the same three Muni underground lines: the L-Terrible, the M-Motionsick and the K-Homicide.

It soon became obvious that the passengers had disappeared somewhere inside the West Portal Tunnel. A team of sewer inspectors and experts from the UC Berkeley School of Mining were quickly dispatched to investigate. Alas, despite extensive investigation, no trace of the railway cars with their cargo of vanished riders was discovered. It was suggested later that the their true destiny may have been suppressed by the authorities, since traces of sulfurous fumes hovering over human skeletal remains were detected in the tunnel for months afterwards.

Today we know that the same authorities had indeed conspired to cover up the true fate of the doomed passengers. Moving quickly to shut down the tunnel, a new one was constructed with doubly reinforced fire-proof walls, its length now extended down Market Street to the Ferry Building.

Nothing is left today to remind us of this horrible episode except a peaceful image of grass-covered rails and a barricaded corridor leading into the bowels of Hell beneath our beloved city.

[Thanks Lew Ellingham and F.S. Rosa.] 

1 comment:

  1. Lew Ellingham emailed me the following comment:

    Plotinus, my familiar, drew my attention to the stench. It seemed more than the usual petroleum-tinged motes of Upper Market Street as we walked westward from the Harvey Milk station at 17th St., Castro and Market, with its new little park at the door of the Glass Coffin Bar. Plotinus is small, so we tarried, and I am old, so we tarried more, but eventually the slanting hole of the Collingword entrance to the Twin Peaks Tunnel hove to view. This once was also the Eureka Street Station, long ago abandoned, though the platforms remain in the tunnel itself. Perhaps the closing of this entrance introduced the karma that has blighted the setting for decades; one wonders. Train drivers who race their speeding trains in the wee hours, thinking to save time or rush home from a final shift: a few have derailed. Other trains have killed workers on the tracks, derailed for no apparent reason, passengers have disappeared -- whither? The stench grew stronger; sorry vines and old weeds festooned along the collapsing walls of the tunnel entrance, the old metal gate weary from whatever, once a bright gray and now the color of a mothballed warship, pealing.

    I bent to pick Plotinus up, to carry; he was struggling, slowing down. Only the size of a small dog, I often have to do this, though in he some situations he is way ahead of me, jumping and turning quickly, racing about within his small compass. But as I touched him, he flew from my hand, which in any case had not closed over him, and hurtled toward the old metal gate of the Collingwood entrance. A huge sound accompanied. Deafening. A movement of air, a sucking. And indeed, the detritus of the street drew and massed with Plotinus as all flew toward the rattling doors, the whole portal trembling, as if a jet plane were about the emerge or collide. My bladder yielded to the horror. These distractions dulled my understanding of the event as a whole, the images more like sequenced still photography than motion pictures, but I did see Plotinus together with a large tree branch hit the grating above the metal doors and bounce heavenward in a large arc toward Collingwood Street. On the street’s surface both landed, but the entrance itself was but a swirl of tumbling, flying junk and noise, dimming only as the orifice itself began to disappear behind the impacting debris.

    I had fallen, unaware of it until I tried to rush to Plotinus and found myself crawling. So horrible! Was he dead? His huge starring eyes were open, but then he seldom blinks them; he rested on one side. In a moment I had grabbed him, tucked him beneath my open jacket, hidden him from the maelstrom. Can I hide myself? So awful, so awful. I couldn’t see clearly. Tears, yes, but the atmosphere was cluttered, the light rapidly failing. Was time passing quickly, like the strong wind? I could hardly clear my nose from phlegm, and was gasping. Was this over? Was it just the beginning?