The mysterious underground hazard St. Louis leaders want to remain secret

FOX Files

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – It’s right under many of the sidewalks along Washington Avenue. You can’t see it, but along some buildings, you will walk over underground rooms with glass ceilings.

Washington Avenue

“There’s a serious risk downtown that’s not only being ignored but really covered up,” said Derek Langeneckert.

Langeneckert knows because he fell down this hole when the sidewalk collapsed. He said, “All of a sudden I was in this huge cavern you know right there. It was almost kind of surreal looking up out of that hole.”

It was 2017, during the Rise Up beer festival.  The street was closed.

You can see the sidewalks behind the booths were used for heavy equipment, like a generator and the forklift Langeneckert was driving that day to move beer.

“This was the third time that day I drove the forklift up to the booth,” he continued, “I turned around, was coming back and there was a little girl and her mom walking in front of me, so you know I stopped for a minute,” said Langeneckert.

That’s when he fell underground

Langeneckert added, “I just can’t imagine that little girl and her mom there standing ten feet away from me you know right there – kegs shot in the air, they exploded.”

 
Despite breaking his back, Langeneckert is doing well today. He owns Alpha Brewing Company near Tower Grove Park. His business is growing.  But the hole he fell through remains. It’s covered with plywood and surrounded by a fence. Even more surprising, he discovered through his lawsuit against the City there are more hidden rooms all the way down Washington Avenue that people walk over every day.

Langeneckert said, “You don’t walk on a sidewalk thinking it’s a suspended bridge. It just doesn’t really cross your mind would it?”

Court records show these pictures taken inside the room he fell into. You can see the ceiling in the hidden basement room, which is made of block glass – made that way in the early 1900’s so shop keepers could use the natural light. 

You can see the more than 100 years of corrosion and the layer of sidewalk constructed right over it.

Residents have no idea.  Clenelle Johnson said, “This goes on for how many blocks?” It continues from the hole, as far as you can see – along individual buildings all the way down Washington Avenue. Nicole Reed added, “I think it’s horrible and should have been fixed a long time ago.”

Hidden rooms

Fox 2 got access to another underground example – a hidden room under a sidewalk near 14th and Washington.


No publicity

Court records show a construction company in 2001 looked into filling 15 hidden basements, but the city apparently took no action. An engineer wrote a letter addressed to Otis Williams, who then headed the St. Louis Development Corporation or SLDC.  It says in part, “We were directed… not to contact any building owners for further investigation or correspondence as to the conditions, responsibilities or liabilities related to the basement extensions. There was to be no publicity related to the basement extensions. There was to be no publicity related to any potential problems or adverse issues.”

Langeneckert said, “It’s a cover up. That’s all it was.”

The City won’t talk to us about it – the Mayor’s office responding simply, “Due to pending litigation we cannot provide a comment at this time.” They’re also not talking to Langeneckert’s lawyers.

Just this past April, Otis Williams was deposed and asked repeated questions about the basements. A City Counselor objected almost every time. During the deposition, Williams was handed the letter, addressed to him in 2001. A City Councilor said, “I’m going to object to all of that.”
 
We found repairs and reinforcements have been made to some hidden basements for about 10 blocks from 2nd Street to Tucker. It was part of a federal grant project.  We got access to one of the examples to see the safety measures taken. The difference is striking.

We’ll stay on top of the lawsuit to address the remainder of Washington Avenue.

Sidewalk damage evaluation report:

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