Wilma buses students to matinee during SEPTA strike


For commuters, the second day of the SEPTA strike was a test of their ingenuity, patience and, in the case of some rail riders, nerves.

Alicia Boyd, 40, a data-entry clerk, boarded an inbound R5 regional train before 7 a.m. at Overbrook Station. Immediately, she could smell burning rubber. Passengers in the first car were moved to the one behind, moments before the first car burst into flames, she said.

The fire was electrical and not the result of sabotage, SEPTA said. No one was injured, but the emergency rattled riders already frazzled by the strike. Passengers in a packed car behind the burning one had to kick open windows to climb out.

"The whole front car was black and melting," Boyd said. "It was incredible."

The shutdown of bus, subway, and trolley service in the city continues to upend people's lives and strain roads as well as SEPTA's still-functioning Regional Rail system.

Hundreds of thousands of commuters have had to adapt in sometimes creative, desperate ways.

Jamir Solomon, 15, a sophomore at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design, reached into his closet for the skateboard he had not touched in a year. He rode it from his family's home in Pennsport more than two miles to his school, at 675 Sansom St. in Center City.

"My stepdad told me I had to come" to school, Solomon said. "I had no choice in the matter. It's better than walking."

De-Sean Fennell, 16, a junior at Roman Catholic High School, has never missed a day of school. Not willing to let SEPTA ruin his perfect record, he walked more than eight miles from his North Philadelphia home Tuesday.

He took the train yesterday, but still expected to walk home from tennis practice in East Falls - a 30-minute hike.

The strike, he said, "pretty much affects my whole life."

Public school students were off Tuesday for the election, making yesterday a better measure of the strike's impact. About 35,000 district students use mass transit.

But the addition of those riders did not overwhelm the system, said MaryAnn Tierney, the city's emergency manager. Yesterday "was pretty much the same as" the first day of the strike, she said.

The Philadelphia School District reported that attendance at neighborhood and magnet high schools was down about 16 percent.

Many students arrived at their schools exceptionally early, dropped off by parents who needed to get to work themselves. And many parents, bracing for a tough rush hour home, inquired about picking up their children later than usual.

Rob Wonderling, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, warned that the strike was causing short-term and long-term damage to the city's economy.

When people have to change their commuting habits, arriving later or leaving earlier, they don't frequent downtown shops as much during the day, he said.

Wonderling added that the strike would hurt productivity as workers worried about getting to work on time.

But more damaging, he said, is the hit to the city's image. By coincidence, on the first day of the strike, the chamber was hosting a delegation of foreign journalists who cover shipping and ports.

"It's a black eye in our ability to market the region as a world-class place to do business," Wonderling said.

The stress of the strike is causing tempers to flare. Greater numbers of cyclists and pedestrians are jockeying with motorists for room on overwhelmed streets. Pedestrians complained that some bicyclists were ignoring traffic rules and riding on already jammed sidewalks.

At SEPTA's 69th Street Terminal, strikers disrupted bus and trolley lines that were not supposed to be affected by the work stoppage. Union pickets kept Victory Division buses corralled in a garage throughout the day and shut down trolleys to Media, Drexel Hill, and Sharon Hill.

At Suburban Station, the scene was less chaotic than Tuesday but the lines were just as long, snaking through corridors. SEPTA office workers managed the flow of riders, asking people to stand "two by two."

Mary Gibbs, 40, waited an hour to get to the stairs to Track 3 for her train. "This is the longest line I've ever seen in my life," she said. "It's terrible."

At 5 p.m., Sandi Joseph, 44, arrived at the end of the R3 queue.

"Goodness gracious!" she exclaimed.

Joseph said she normally took the Market-Frankford Line to her car parked at 46th and Market. But because of the strike, she has to take the R3 to 49th and Chester.

Joseph said she wasn't angry with the striking workers, but she felt the union "should probably have stayed at the table a little longer before running away."

And at 30th Street Station, Center City cabdrivers exchanged hostile words with operators of cabs from outlying areas who are allowed to work in the city only during the strike.

The strike is hurting business for cabdrivers because of the gridlock in Center City. "Business is worse because traffic is worse," said Yusef Drame, a driver for United Cab.

On a more positive note, the strike has brought out the best in some people.

Without mass transit, students from 10 public schools were going to miss attending a matinee yesterday at the Wilma Theater of Coming Home, by Athol Fugard. As part of a special program, the students read and study the play before seeing a live performance.

The Wilma and another theater company, 1812 Productions, chartered buses to bring students from at least two schools - South Philadelphia High School and Meade Elementary School in North Philadelphia - to the show.

"For a lot of these students, this was the first time they've seen live theater," said Anne Holmes, education director at the Wilma. "It's a unique opportunity that we didn't want them to miss."

The siege mentality that has descended on the city also has pulled together colleagues at some workplaces.

At the Center City office of AAA automotive and travel services, seven of 12 employees are affected by the strike.

Jackie Fritz, 28, an AAA supervisor, said her mother had driven her and a coworker to Center City from Clifton Heights, Delaware County - and then battled traffic to get to her own job in the communications office at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine on City Avenue.

Fritz, who can't afford the high parking rates downtown, normally would take a bus to the 69th Street Terminal to catch the Market-Frankford Line for Center City. A commute that normally would take 45 minutes now takes twice as long.

Her employees "are trying to stay calm and not take their frustrations out on others," Fritz said. "But you can tell a lot of people are tired and value their time. They want to get back that extra hour and a half of commuting every day."