by Pat Worden
“The streets were like rivers,” Rosemary Reymann told me.
Rosemary and others who remember the terrible events of July 21, 1964, tend also to recall the torrential deluge that preceded it. News reports from the time say that 3 inches of rain fell on Akron in less than an hour. It might have been just a summer storm, albeit a notable one, if not for the tragedy that came in its wake.
Those same news reports, as well as accident investigators who were on the scene later, blamed a 36-inch storm sewer line, originally installed in 1927 beneath what was then known as Tallmadge Parkway. The pipe had deteriorated badly over the decades, but this went undetected until that fateful day as the surge of rainwater tore it open. The underground flood began eroding the surrounding soil and undermining the roadway above.
Earlier in the day, Akron resident Velma Shidler braved the storm to take her daughter Claudia, 10, and Claudia’s best friend Janet Lewis, 13, to a swimming lesson at Firestone High School. The class ended just after 3 pm. The three dashed through the rain once again, got in Velma’s 1962 Corvair, and headed toward home in Goodyear Heights.
Their path, from the west side to the east, would take them across Tallmadge Parkway.
That section of the parkway, east of Aqueduct Street, plunges toward the Little Cuyahoga River valley before climbing back upward around Uhler Avenue and connecting with West Tallmadge Avenue. Velma Shidler’s Corvair never made it that far. She was nearly at the bottom of the hill, just past the railroad trestle overpass that can still be seen today, when the roadway caved in.
According to witnesses and the account Shidler later gave to police, the sinkhole opened directly in front of her, spanning from the right berm of the road into the adjoining lane. Shidler didn’t have time to stop, and instead tried to swerve to the left. The hole widened. Her car tipped backward and slid in. The chasm was more than 40 feet deep.
From Velma Shidler’s perspective, all was terror and confusion. One of the first things she saw, as the rear of the car hit the bottom, was the back window break and her daughter Claudia tumble through it. She tried to reach the girl, but she slid from her grasp. She pulled Janet into the front seat and held onto her as more dirt and pavement fell onto the car from the lip above, and the roar of rushing water grew around them.
Back on the surface, several motorists had seen the accident or arrived on the scene just after it happened, according to their witness statements. A workman named John Wiebelt took an extension ladder from his truck, and finding it not long enough to reach the bottom of the hole, tied a length of rope to the top rung and lowered it down. A 19-year-old man volunteered to climb in for the rescue.
His name would become known throughout Akron, although his family was already familiar enough. He was Hugh O’Neil, grandson of the founder of General Tire and great-grandson of the founder of the downtown O’Neil’s department store.
Rosemary Reymann, a longtime Akron Public Schools teacher and current Highland Square community leader, remembers not just the incessant rain but Hugh O’Neil as well.
“We were both in St. Sebastian’s Parish. He was a year ahead of me,” she recalls. She told me he was close friends with a neighbor of hers, that they ran around together and got into mild sorts of trouble. He was, by all accounts, a young man of much promise; and in the end, was a hero.
Hugh tied a second length of rope around his waist and began his descent. Akron Police Officer Ronald Rotruck arrived, quickly assessed the situation and elected to join O’Neil. He removed his hat and gunbelt, witnesses reported, then tied himself off, and had Wiebelt lower him in.
The two worked together to pull Velma and Janet from the car, and helped them begin ascending the ladder. From there, Wiebelt and others on the surface lowered ropes to pull them out. The witnesses could see that Rotruck and O’Neil were looking first into the back seat of the car, then into the area behind it. Presumably they were looking for Claudia.
The hole collapsed further and more water began to flood in. John Wiebelt fell in but was quickly rescued by Akron firefighters arriving on the scene. He said he caught a glimpse of Rotruck, who appeared to be pinned behind the car. He disappeared from sight as the level of mud and water rose. The fire crew spotted a pair of hands emerging from the muck and lowered a ladder to within reach. That person — no one is sure if it was Rotruck or O’Neil — briefly grasped the ladder but then let go.
Ronald Rotruck, Hugh O’Neil, and Claudia Shilder were never seen alive again.
Rotruck and Claudia were recovered days later from the sinkhole. News reports from the time say that Hugh was evidently washed away by the torrent, and was found by divers in the Little Cuyahoga.
The city was transfixed by the tragedy and the story dominated the news for days. The Parkway was closed for weeks as the sewer line was replaced and the roadway repaired. City Council proposed renaming the route “Rotruck-O’Neil Parkway,” but both families demurred, explaining that seeing those names on maps and road signs would be too painful.
So a compromise was reached and the section of roadway between West Tallmadge Avenue and North Portage Path was dubbed “Memorial Parkway.”.
Akron motorists still traverse Memorial Parkway 55 years later, but few know the story of valor and loss that lies behind its name. Perhaps that’s inevitable. So much time has passed, memories have faded, and those who lived through the events are now in the minority.
But commemoration of the tragedy remains, in the shorthand of a single street name, recorded there in our very geography. The brave and the innocent lost on July 21, 1964, are memorialized for all of us, for all time.
Pat Worden is a lifelong Akron resident. He’s on the hunt for the city’s lost lore.