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Swept away

Published Apr. 12, 2002|Updated Sep. 3, 2005

The rain started on a Tuesday and didn't let up for days. It turned creeks into swollen brown rivers. The rainwater flooded the city drainage system and belched out into the streets, rising shin-deep in some places. St. Petersburg got almost 8{ inches of rain in six days _ an inch more than it usually gets the whole month.

On Friday, Sept. 26, 1997, in the middle of the storm, a young woman named Ann Tucker spent the afternoon hanging around Booker Lake. About 4 p.m. she stepped onto a wet slab of concrete, slipped and fell into the water. The current pushed her into the mouth of a large drain pipe and carried her through a half-mile of darkness. It finally spat her out, unhurt, into a creek alongside a parking lot.

A few hours later, in another part of the city, Julie White got swept into a different pipe. She was playing in a drainage ditch full of muddy water when she lost her footing. Her friends and her brother and sister saw her disappear, and by the time they noticed her arm sticking out of a catchbasin a city block away, it was too late. She was 13.

That same day, a rock 'n' roll guitarist named Graham Parker flew in from New York for a gig at the State Theater. He saw the news about Ann Tucker and Julie White, and it stayed with him. Much later he wrote a song, I'll Never Play Jacksonville Again. It's on his most recent album. It begins,

Two young girls were swept down

The culverts in the rain

St. Petersburg was flooded again

I reached my hand out for them

But I watched them slip away

And I had to get up to Jacksonville that day

This story is about a terrible day in 1997 and how it affected some people's lives.

For Ann Tucker, it was the day the world noticed her.

For the parents of Julie White, it was the first of many days of almost unspeakable sadness _ 1,659 days so far.

To Graham Parker, who was passing through on his way to Jacksonville, what happened that day was mostly just material.

When Parker got to the rental car lot near Tampa International Airport, the cars looked like boats on a lake.

"I think of Florida as the place you go to retire, and it's sunny all the time," he says from his home near Woodstock, N.Y. "I didn't realize."

Parker, who was born in London, hit the music scene in 1976 with the album Howlin' Wind and instantly became known as rock's angry young man. "Ain't nobody wants to know you when you're down," he snarled in one song, "and everybody wants to lose you when you're found." The pop reference book musicHound Rock credits Parker with "(blazing) the trail for punk rock."

But tastes changed and Parker's sound went out of vogue, which meant he didn't get played on the radio anymore. It didn't help that artists with similar styles, such as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, already overshadowed him. On the album Burning Questions, Parker sang, "I've seen the future of rock _ and it sucks."

No radio meant no sales. (The album on which he sang about rock's future sold only 18,000 copies, according to SoundScan.) By 1997 he was recording for an independent label and playing gigs for a few loyalists in venues such as the State Theater in St. Petersburg.

When he got to the Central Avenue theater to do his sound check that Friday in September, the roof was leaking. He had to be careful where he put his guitar.

The gig was just another gig. What Parker remembers, though vaguely, are the top news stories of that day.

"I believe there was a young girl about 12 years old who got swept away in a flash flood," he is saying now. "She was fishing. Got swept down there."

Julie White. She wasn't fishing, but the rest is about right.

The morning after the St. Petersburg show, Parker drove through the rain to Jacksonville to play at the Milk Bar. When he got to town, he says, he heard about a young woman who went down the sewer there and popped out 11 blocks later.

Ann Tucker had gone through the pipe in St. Petersburg, not Jacksonville, but the 11-block figure is exactly what the media reported.

Parker, 51, says the Milk Bar audience didn't look like his kind of crowd. And wasn't.

"I do my first song, and shall we say the applause is tepid. Immediately I'm filled with a sense of dread, foreboding and doom," he says. "I can hear people saying, "Who is this guy? Why is his music like this?'

"I reached a strong and steadfast resolution: I'm going to get rid of these idiots."

Parker plowed through his 75-minute set like a badger digging a hole. No patter, no showmanship, no thanks-for-coming.

"By about the eighth song they'd gone. I was left with two couples and a mentally challenged gentleman," he says. "The mentally challenged gentleman was walking around the room, and every now and again he'd stop and look at one of the ladies' legs."

Eventually one of the husbands got angry and head-butted the guy.

"So I've got five people in my audience and there's a fight," Parker says.

The next day he played Orlando. He describes the Florida swing as "a tour-ette. I nearly developed Tourette's afterwards, actually."

Sometime in the next year or so, Parker wrote about that weekend. I'll Never Play Jacksonville Again begins with the solemn couplet about a hand reaching out to the drowning girls. "That's the image I remember _ of people reaching out," he says.

The rest of the song is irreverent: It's about Parker's experiences, not White's or Tucker's. At the Milk Bar, he writes, they gave him Jagermeister (true) and half a lid (not true _ "I said that because it rhymes with whatever came before.") After that they wanted him to "shut my mouth."

The weekend was a disaster, but Parker wasn't going to kill himself over it. He says so in the final verse, bringing the song full circle:

I don't need anybody to find me

Floatin' around in the sewer

The song is a lark, Parker says. Don't take it seriously. Even the title is a joke. He'd be happy to play Jacksonville again.

"I got a great song out of it."

Ann Tucker can't be found anywhere. Public records list a half-dozen addresses for her _ rundown apartments, boarded-up houses. Nobody around those places has seen her.

Tucker's mother, in Jacksonville, says she hasn't heard from her in months. Tucker doesn't work and doesn't stay anywhere for long, she says. She explains that her daughter is "slow," that she was in special classes but didn't finish high school, that she "can function in society, but just barely."

Her record includes arrests for shoplifting, grand larceny and possession of LSD and marijuana.

"If I hear from her I'll have her call you," her mother, Debora Jay, says.

One day the phone rings, and it's Tucker.

It turns out she is staying in an apartment on Ninth Avenue N. She shares it with a couple and their young daughter, whose picture is everywhere. Tucker's room, with its single bed, is overrun by the little girl's toys.

Tucker, 27, has a plain, round face and long black hair parted in the middle. She has just washed it, and it's still wet. She's soft-spoken and matter-of-fact. She tells her story calmly and confidently, explaining, "I tell it to plenty of people."

Her companions that day were Joshua McBride, 9, and Matthew Sturm, 13, the children of a friend. Tucker was 22 at the time. The three were playing under a bridge at the southeast corner of Booker Lake.

"Under the bridge there was a slab of cement. The water was flowing over the slab of cement. I was walking on it and so were the boys," she says.

She slipped into the water and toward a drain pipe with widely spaced bars covering the opening. The bars look like a cowcatcher on a train.

"I tried to step on one of the bars, but my leg slipped through. Then my other leg slipped through the bar," Tucker says. "I grabbed on with my hands. But I couldn't hold on anymore, and I just let go."

Soon she was several feet underground, in the dark. She went under all six lanes of I-275. The pipe turned to the right. She went under Ninth Avenue N. Each time she passed under a catchbasin _ an opening in the street that lets water into the pipe _ she saw light.

Once, she grabbed onto something and screamed for help. The water swept her away again.

She was heading south now, under the northbound entrance ramp to the highway. She went under Fifth Avenue N, where homeless people ask motorists for change. Under a storage yard where the city keeps cinder blocks and pipe.

In all she traveled 3,000 feet, sometimes riding the top of the rushing water, sometimes sinking into it. Sometimes she stumbled along on her feet as the current shoved her forward. She was down there for 10 minutes, she thinks.

"I was crying, praying to God," she says. "You know what I'm saying?"

Finally she flopped out into Booker Creek. She slogged up the creekbank and into the parking lot of the city's public works complex. Workers saw her and called an ambulance. News people came and took pictures _ the ones Graham Parker saw.

"They took me to Edward White Hospital," Tucker says. Right back where she came from. The doctors checked her over and sent her home. Later, she watched herself on TV and saw her picture in the paper. It was exciting.

Then life went on as it had before. She moved around a lot. She found a boyfriend, but they broke up. She was arrested for battery and for violating the probation she'd received for earlier drug possession charges. She spent some time in a mental hospital.

"I hear voices sometimes, and they tell me to hurt myself," Tucker says. She shows the underside of her left arm, and it's riddled with razor scars.

She's better now, she says. She takes Seroquel for the schizophrenia and Depakote for the manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder.

Time to listen to the song. Tucker, who had never heard of Graham Parker before now, pushes the CD into the player and pumps the volume on the digital counter up to 30. For four minutes and 55 seconds she sits and listens, utterly expressionless, moving only once to rub her eye.

When the song is over she smiles. Going through that pipe was the biggest thing that ever happened to her, and this is second.

"It's a nice song. I like it," she says. "It's really surprising that somebody would write a song about me."

Julie White's mother sits on the edge of her sofa and listens to the first verse of the song. Her lips form something like a smile, minus the happiness.

When the music stops Carmella Morano says, "It makes me feel good. But I don't know how to feel."

She fights through this tangle of emotions every day. She likes her job as floor manager at a bingo parlor, but. Sometimes Julie's old friends stop by and she appreciates it, but. She likes to think about Julie when she was a baby, but.

"If it wasn't for the other kids," she says, "I wouldn't want to be here."

Julie's brothers and sister all have the endearing habit of saying "panicakes" for pancakes and "blanklet" for blanket, and their mother doesn't want them to grow out of it because Julie said the same things. The twins, Jimmy and Judy, are 14 now, older than Julie was when she died, so it's beginning to seem like they're the big ones and Julie is the little one. Joey, who is 9, chews his food the way Julie did.

What else does Morano remember about Julie? Everything. She had green eyes and black hair. She wanted to be a traveling nurse and work with patients all over the country. She loved music. The night before the accident, Julie and her friends went to a Christian radio station and made a demo tape, just for fun. Her mother still has it.

And the Parker song? Morano doesn't know what to make of it. In the beginning, she notices, he really seems to care about Julie: I reached my hand out for them, but I watched them slip away. But then he starts talking about other things, and Morano isn't sure why.

Still, she likes the song because, however oddly, it brings Julie back. She likes anything that brings Julie back.

It was Friday afternoon and the rain had finally let up, so Julie White went out to play in Allendale Park, near her father's house. Her parents had split up.

A drainage ditch in the park funnels water into two concrete pipes, each 24 inches in diameter. Julie and a few other children _ including twins Jimmy and Judy _ were splashing around in the ditch. Then Julie slipped and was gone. The others screamed for the neighbors and looked down the pipe, but they couldn't find Julie. She had traveled 675 feet _ a city block. Somebody running for help saw her hand sticking out of the cut in the street corner.

Her father was there when they pulled her out.

Now he is on the other end of the phone.

"If you're calling to talk about what I think you want to talk about," he says, "this isn't a good time."

He agrees to talk later, during a break from work. But even then you can see that for James White, what happened to Julie is something you don't talk about.

The interview takes place on a park bench next to Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg. White, a contractor who is renovating a house nearby, is dressed in shorts, work boots, a T-shirt with a flannel shirt over it, Bucs hat. He's a big man, and when he chokes up talking about Julie it's like looking at a landslide.

"My daughter has a tree planted over there," he says, gesturing toward the playground next to the lake. The tree is a skinny young live oak. He wants children to climb on it someday.

"If I need to talk to her I go over there," he says, and then his throat starts closing around his words and he stops.

After Julie's death, her parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city, finally settling for $200,000. The city is talking about putting up a fence to keep children from playing near the pipe, but so far nothing has been done.

"I've thought about cementing the damn thing closed myself," White says.

After a moment he says he'd better get back to work. If he talks about this anymore, he says, he'll still be thinking about it on the job, and he'll wind up cutting off a finger. Before he goes he asks for a copy of the Graham Parker song so he can listen to it alone.

Much later, just this week, the phone rings and it's White. He has decided to post warning signs in the park himself. He has called three sign companies and asked for estimates on a dozen signs and signposts. The best price so far is $700, which is a lot for him, but he doesn't care.

Putting the signs up could get him in trouble. He doesn't care about that, either.

"Rainy season's coming, and I'm not going to wait for somebody else to get hurt," he says. "My daughter is gone, and there's nothing I can do except something for her. And I know she would want me to do something like this."

Before he hangs up he is asked about the song. What did he think of the song?

"I never listened to it."

I'll Never Play Jacksonville Again

Here are the lyrics to Graham Parker's song:

Two young girls were swept down

The culverts in the rain

St. Petersburg was flooded again

I reached my hand out for them

But I watched them slip away

And I had to get up to Jacksonville that day

I don't need anyone to remind me

I don't get the big picture

I don't need anybody to find me

Hanging from a lighting fixture

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