A little more than a week ago, Alyssa Potance and her mother were almost eaten by a sinkhole in Wilkinsburg. Luckily, they both escaped totally unscathed from yet another wacky yet terrifying infrastructure-related incident in the Pittsburgh area.

Last week, the Union Progress caught up with Potance, 41, of Wilkinsburg, to discuss that scary experience and the social-media frenzy that sprung up in the wake of it. Five days later, she only needed one word to describe her mindset: “Concerned.”

“I think this is serious enough that I would really like to see education regarding it,” Potance said. “I know that problem-solving is quite complicated and requires people who are obviously way more specialized than me … but I want people to take this seriously. Someone could’ve gotten hurt. It’s luck that we escaped completely, 100% unharmed.”

Others weren’t so fortunate in the aftermath of other highly publicized accidents over the past few years — most notably, the ones in which a Port Authority bus fell into a Downtown sinkhole in 2019 and an entire bridge collapsed over Frick Park in early 2022. Both residents like Potance and officials in Wilkinsburg are taking extra note of all the work that needs to be done in their borough and beyond.

“There has to be a different approach,” said Wilkinsburg Borough Council President Denise Edwards. “The Fern Hollow Bridge has to collapse before we pay any attention? Come on now.”

Alyssa Potance, left, and her mother, Cheryl Potance. (Alyssa Potance)

‘Like no other pothole’

Potance is a registered speech and language pathologist who grew up in Greenfield and is an alumnus of Allderdice High School. She had been living in New Mexico for the past eight years before relocating back to Pittsburgh in late July. Wilkinsburg has provided a lot of comfort for her as she continues to seek full-time employment in her hometown.

“I’m glad to be back because this is my culture,” Potance said. “I feel like this is where I have roots and this is where I belong.”

The sinkhole incident occurred during the evening of Dec. 29, 2022. Potance was riding in the passenger seat of her mother’s Honda Fit. Cheryl Potance, 72, of Greenfield, was driving her daughter home from Oakland. They were heading down Biddle Avenue and needed to make a left turn onto West Street to reach Alyssa’s apartment.

“When she made the left-hand turn, we got stuck in what we thought was a pothole,” Alyssa said. “But this was like no other pothole I had ever experienced, even being from here.”

She said the car became “almost like a seesaw” with the driver-side seat totally tilted to the side. Afterward, Cheryl told her daughter that she opened the car door expecting to find solid ground but instead could see “all the way down into the bowels of the Earth.” That caused Cheryl to scream, and both women immediately exited the car out the passenger-side door.

Initially, only the driver’s side of the car was in the sinkhole. As Alyssa recalled, though, the ground kept cracking every 15 minutes for the next two hours until the front of her mother’s car was completely submerged.

Two Wilkinsburg police officers were the first to arrive on the scene, according to Potance’s recollection. They began knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking them to move their cars, both so the Honda Fit could be extracted and in case more erosion occurred on that block. Workers with Culgan Towing helped remove the car, which Potance said seemed to have sustained the damage of “a moderate fender-bender,” from the sinkhole.

“I was very appreciative of the workers,” she said. “Just how they came together as a team really impressed me.”

An employee with Culgan Towing surveys the scene after a car fell into a sinkhole in Wilkinsburg on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022. (Alyssa Potance)

Somebody’s going to get killed

Mora McLaughlin, a construction communications project manager with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, declined to comment on the Wilkinsburg sinkhole due to it not being within PWSA’s service area.

Wilkinsburg borough manager John Antinori told the Union Progress via email that the Biddle sinkhole was caused by a leaky water line that weakened the earth underneath the street. That water line has been repaired and the sinkhole itself filled in, though there is currently no update on when that section of Biddle will be resurfaced, Antinori said.

Edwards was out of town when the Potances’ car was almost swallowed whole in her borough and caught up on the situation upon her return.

“The council is deeply concerned, and beyond that is actively pursuing efforts we can think of to make sure that never happens again and that their safety is never put in peril as a result of the structures in Wilkinsburg,” Edwards said. “We’re with you, and we’re deeply troubled and very worried about what’s going on.”

She’s keenly aware that Wilkinsburg’s water infrastructure is in desperate need of an update. Edwards would love to see the pipes refurbished and some sort of electronic red flag be implemented that would alert the borough of potential problems of this magnitude before they grow into sinkholes.

“We’d like to see some sort of preventative,” she said. “Somebody’s going to get killed. Sooner or later, the infrastructure can’t sustain this. … It’s not made to last forever. This is not the Grand Canyon, folks.”

Where the money for such upgrades will come from, though, remains unclear. Edwards said she has been in touch with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and newly sworn-in U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio to figure out if the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — which set aside $350 billion for infrastructure-related expenses through September 2026 — could be employed to improve Wilkinsburg’s piping systems.

Deluzio represents Pennsylvania’s 17th District, which includes Wilkinsburg. He said in an emailed statement that he’s “grateful that no one was hurt” in the Wilkinsburg incident and that despite the increasing prevalence of sinkholes in the region, “we shouldn’t accept them as a regular part of life.”

“Thankfully, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law … provides the commonwealth with millions of dollars to improve our water infrastructure systems in communities like Wilkinsburg and funds remediation efforts of abandoned mines, which also pose hazardous sinkhole risks,” he said.

“In Congress, I’ll work to make sure that these federal dollars make their way to Western Pennsylvania swiftly and effectively.”

Alyssa Potance, 41, of Wilkinsburg. (Alyssa Potance)

‘An educational process’

Potance can see the sinkhole that tried to envelop her mother’s car from her apartment window. She said that before it was filled, folks were throwing trash such as pop cans and pizza boxes in it. That really disturbed her as a “concerned steward of the Earth.”

She also wasn’t thrilled with social media making light of what happened to her and her mother. Though she’s forgiving of the impulse that led to those reactions, Potance thinks it underscores how we’ve reached an inflection point with local infrastructure failures where “we don’t know what else to do besides make memes about it.”

“There’s not a solid approach to fixing climate change or s—– infrastructure,” she said. “You can’t rip up the entire city of Pittsburgh. I think because of that helplessness and hopelessness, people resort to things like this for coping.”

In Potance’s estimation, part of the problem plaguing this area’s streets is on a “profoundly spiritual level” in the sense that it stems from “what human civilization has done to this planet.” Last week, she went down to the sinkhole by her home before it was filled and performed a ritual “representing nourishment” for the Earth that at least made her feel momentarily better about the combined crises affecting Allegheny County infrastructure.

Part of the reason Potance left New Mexico for Pittsburgh was a looming water shortage in that part of the country. Now that she has been directly confronted by a different sort of ecological issue back home, she hopes Western Pennsylvanians will use what happened to her as motivation to at least start seriously discussing how to combat this worsening problem.

“I just want to see us really getting together and having discussions about it,” she said. “This is an educational process. It’s not something to be taken lightly. It can happen to anyone, and someone can get hurt.”

Joshua covers pop culture, media and more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Contact him at jaxelrod@unionprogress.com.

Joshua Axelrod

Joshua covers pop culture, media and more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Contact him at jaxelrod@unionprogress.com.