John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
China's hungry infrastructure claims yet another victim.
You can spend your entire life dodging subway grates and manhole covers to prevent an accidental drop into the dark guts of the city. But there's nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to protect against sinkholes lurking below the most innocent-looking of sidewalks.
Two yelp-worthy plunges in China recently drove home the dangers of urban sinkholes. The first occurred in March to a woman strolling in Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in northwest China. A sidewalk opened up underneath her feet like a trapdoor to a gallows, pulling her 20 feet down into a water-filled abyss and knocking her unconsciousness. Firefighters eventually hauled her, crying, back into the world of light.
The hole was the work of the underground flow of water, according to the Toronto Sun, which attributes the original story to China Central Television. Here's a better video, albeit one with an annoying ad at the beginning. The poor woman kind of looks like the prisoner trapped in Buffalo Bill's basement in The Silence of the Lambs:
The second sinkhole story is much worse. On April 1, another woman was hurrying to work when the sidewalk gave way underneath her, the result of broken heating pipes from a nearby mansion. The hole was filled with steam and boiling water that instantly scorched her entire body; she perished a week later in the hospital. The gory details, from the Global Times:
"She suddenly fell in to this hole full of boiling water," Yang's colleague, surnamed Ma, told the Beijing News at the scene. "It was horrible, as I tried to help her up, her skin began to peel."
Somebody needs to better fund the municipal sewerage crews in China, because urban sinkholes and hot springs seem to be rampant nowadays. ChinaSMACK has this historical detail (N.B.: link includes a disturbing photo of a body):
On March, 16 last year, seven residents were scalded by hot water spraying from a hole in the Sidaokou area of Haidian district. It was later found to be caused by improper maintenance by [Beijing Heating System Group] staff according to the Beijing Evening News.
On a side note, southwest China is host to the largest sinkhole in the world. Xiaozhai Tiankeng is 2,171 feet deep and has a capacity of 390 million cubic feet. In China, tiankeng means something like "heavenly pit" – an appropriate if macabre term, given what happens to some of their victims.