Will Bunch | Philadelphia Daily News | June 2002
ADA PRO knew something was very, very wrong when she saw the headlights of the car that was creeping slowly the wrong way up the 1900 block of South Lambert Street.
It was after midnight on a hot, sticky July night, 48 summers ago. Just hours earlier, the narrow canyon of boxy, brick rowhouses had echoed with the shouts of men slamming down cards on a concrete stoop, while the familiar odors of hot coffee and moist cake from the corner bakery hung in the hazy air.
But now, there was deathly silence on the South Philadelphia street. Pro, just a teen-ager, watched the wrong-way car creep to a stop in front of one stoop across the street, then another – first 1925, then 1927, 1929, 1931, 1939. Finally, authorities rang the doorbell at the Pro rowhouse.
Just a short while earlier, six of the guys playing cards outside had decided on a whim to go off for a late-night joy ride. Pro’s older brother, Dante, had to pick up his new bride from her job at the airport, and one of his friends wanted to show off his new 1953 Oldsmobile, a Rocket-88. They thought the car ride would cool them off.
Four of the men never came home. Gaetano Ricevuto, Anthony Tulina Sr., Eugene Santarlas Jr. and Vincent Caruso Jr. all died after a horrific head-on, two-car collision at 12:10 a.m. on the old Industrial Highway between the airport and South Philly. Newlywed Grace Pro was also killed. Dante Pro, neighborhood teen-ager Nicholas Russo and the driver of the other car were seriously hurt.
The men who died in the July 9, 1954, wreck were all married fathers. They left behind 10 children. The oldest was 14, the youngest just 18 months.
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Even after all this time, memories of Lambert Street and its four dead fathers still linger for the survivors.
This Father’s Day, the heat and humidity of another summer on the way will likely bring back some of the old ‘what ifs?’. Why did so many pile into the car so late on a Thursday night? How would their lives have turned out differently with a father’s guiding hand, occasionally applied sharply to a wayward son’s backside?
“I still think about him a lot – I really do,” Anthony Ricevuto – who was 14 the night of the accident, now 62 – says today of his dad. “Your mind tends to wander back. All the questions. Why did five of them have to go along?”
For the 10 children, all South Philadelphia natives, now middle-aged, Father’s Day isn’t a time of Hallmark cards and titanium golf clubs. Instead, it’s a day to reflect – about loss, but also about strength, about how one remarkable city block acted as a tough yet consoling extended Italian family to pull them through a tragedy still difficult to fathom.
At times, they mourn the street and their lost Philadelphia of the 1950s almost as much as they do their fathers. “It was South Philly the way it used to be,” said Joyce Caruso Quintieri, Vincent Carsuo’s daughter, who stayed in the neighborhood and runs a luncheonette at 16th and Ritner. “We never wanted to leave the street.”
No one imagined it could end – the steamy days when their dads would open up the block’s fire plug, the work nights when dinner was always served at exactly the same time, when father came through the front door. The smells of manhood – of fresh-baked rolls and strong Italian coffees and a bottle of Schmidt’s – were the overpowering aroma of Lambert Street.
When it did end so abruptly for the kids – their fathers dying before they woke – they were far too young to understand.
Eugene Santarlas III was just 5, and he had gone around the corner to his grandmother’s house to sleep. The next day, he was sent to an aunt’s home while family members scurried around. He grasped that something was wrong.
“We were walking back to my grandmother’s house, and a kid came up to me and said, ‘Your dad died last night.’ I started running to my grandmother’s house and burst through the door. There must have been 100 people inside. My uncle took me aside and told me what happened.”
He now knows that what happened that long-ago July night was the end of one thing, and the beginning of something else.
“My life pretty much began the night my dad died,” Santarlas said. “That’s when I started remembering things.”
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Today, a visitor in search of those memories on Lambert Street, between Mifflin and Mc- Kean, will find the basic layout – the boxy line of symmetrical two-story rowhouses, separated by a narrow funnel of asphalt – that was there in the ’50s.
There are signs of both urban decay and working-class stability. There’s some litter on the block, but most of the brick or stone rowhouses are well-kept, some with American flags in the window. On a hot June Sunday, kids rode toy cars in the street and some grownups sat on the stoop. Almost all of the residents now are black.
The only person left from the old days, when the block was almost exclusively Italian-American, is Ada Pro. She still lives in her family’s red-brick home with the faded Carrier air-conditioner sign – the house where she lived with Dante, Grace and her parents 48 years ago.
When a visitor stopped by, Pro – now in her 60s – was reluctant to turn the inside key of her wrought-iron outer door, until he mentioned the accident. Her living room was pale and dimly lit on the sunny day, and pop music blared from a stereo. Sinking into the plastic slip-cover on her sofa, she spoke wistfully of the old days.
“This used to be paradise,” Pro said. “They used to have a ball here. Doors were always open, and people sat on the steps every night. You never worried about somebody.” Every Sunday, people dressed up and headed to Mass at St. Edmund’s. And when it got really, really hot, it wasn’t unheard of to sleep out on the concrete slab to stay cool.
So, after the kids were put to bed on Thursday, July 8, the men were out where they always were – on one of the stoops, playing a late-night card game called “briskel.”
Ricevuto, who’d just quit as an office worker for the Pennsylvania Railroad because of failing eyesight, was the oldest of the crew at 40. Caruso, a Navy veteran and firefighter out on injury leave, was 35. Tulina, an oil-truck driver who also had served in World War II, seeing action at the Battle of the Bulge, was 30. Santarlas, an insurance agent, was just 23 but already the father of three. The youngest of the group was Nicholas Russo, only 17.
Dante Pro, a commercial artist, was 25. He and Grace had been married for just 10 months, and they were looking forward to a shore vacation with family once she got off work at the airport, where her pleasant voice had gotten her the job as flight announcer. Her shift there was up at midnight.
“Come on with me, fellows,” the Philadelphia Bulletin would later quote Pro as saying. “It’s hot. The ride will cool us off. You’ll sleep better.”
But there was a problem with Pro’s car. Ada Pro recalls that some of the springs in the back seat were broken, so Caruso volunteered his wheels instead. He seemed eager to show off his new Rocket-88, and the five others piled in. It was 11:30 p.m. His wife, Rose, is said to have begged her husband not to go, but Caruso insisted.
Russo, who would survive the crash and now lives in Bucks County, says that the happy-go-lucky group made one final stop in the meadows near the airport, to shoot off a firecracker that was left over from the 4th of July.
With Grace Pro sitting next to her husband, the group headed back toward Passyunk Avenue. The men hadn’t been drinking, but apparently Caruso was driving quite fast – perhaps 95 mph, some would later say.
Ten minutes after midnight, Caruso lost control on the sharp curve just west of 63rd Street and jumped the low concrete divider. They slammed head-on into an oncoming car – ironically, also a 1953 Oldsmobile – driven by a 28-year-old Chester man, William Nixon. Other motorists remembered the horrible sound of ripping steel and a thick cloud of dust.
Some of the passengers in Caruso’s Rocket-88 were hurled onto the concrete, and others were trapped in the twisted metal. Even now, the crash survivors and the relatives of the dead still brood about the twists of location and fate that allowed some to live and caused others to perish.
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Russo, the only passenger still living today, says he believes the firecracker stop saved his life, because when he got back in the Olds, he switched seats with Santarlas. He had just swung around to talk with Grace Pro when the car jumped the center divider.
“The only thing I remember is that I’d just turned around,” Russo said. “The two doors on the right side flew open. I flew out, and the door closed on my ankle.”
Ada Pro remembers how her young sister-in-law, Grace, who was killed instantly, was still wearing a pair of sandals when she was found.
Ricevuto clung to life for a week in Methodist Hospital before he died. His son Michael says that his glass eye stayed in during the crash, and he was still clutching a cigarette lighter.
Michael Ricevuto says that doctors were slow to respond to his father’s internal injury, and he still wonders whether Gaetano Ricevuto would have survived in a modern trauma center. “He basically drowned in his own blood.”
Mass for the three fathers who died instantly – Tulina, Caruso and Santarlas – was said at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. the following Tuesday at St. Edmund’s. Anthony Tulina recalls that his father was laid out beforehand in the parlor of their rowhouse.
The young Tulina was just 4, too young to comprehend the loss of his father.
“I was trying to wake him up,” he recalled. “My sister was 7, and she actually tried to jump in the coffin. She thought he was sleeping.”
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Indeed, the fatherless children of Lambert Street say it would be a long time for their loss to really sink in.
World War II, Korea and dangerous workplaces meant that the death of a young male – while no less tragic – was also more common. The extended family of Lambert Street did what it could to fill the deep void.
“I felt we were protected,” Caruso’s daughter, Quintieri, said. “It wasn’t until we were a lot older that we realized the gravity of the situation.”
That first Christmas, the families were written about in the newspapers, and readers of the Inquirer donated gifts. None of the young widows and their children moved away, at least at first. The 10 kids formed a close bond.
“We were all tough kids,” Eugene Santarlas said. “We knew we didn’t have a father, but we all hung together – we got into fights, and we played ball. Our life, really, was OK.”
It was harder for the adults. Most of the mothers had to work incredibly hard to earn enough to support their families.
Anthony Ricevuto says his mother worked an overnight shift at the Sheraton in Center City, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. She got home in time to send the kids off to school, and then made some extra money as a seamstress. She was home when the kids got home at 3 p.m. Ricevuto can’t remember when his mom slept.
No one seemed more devastated than Dante Pro, the young widower, who spent weeks in the hospital but fully recovered from his injuries. He eventually worked as an engraver for the Franklin Mint and would marry two more times, but never had children. He died in 1995.
The children started feeling the loss more as they grew into teenagers. In the 1950s and early ’60s, fathers were looked to for family discipline – and that had been especially true on Lambert Street.
“He was very strict,” Quintieri said of her dad, a smile crossing her face. “He was the typical 1950s dad – he went off to work every day.”
Anthony Ricevuto says that he and some of the other boys on the block could have used a stern fatherly hand.
“There wasn’t anybody around to discipline me,” said Ricevuto, recalling some wild teen-age years. Eventually, he said, he joined the Army to get back on track. “I was a totally different person when I came out.” Santarlas also joined the Air Force in the late 1960s.
Not everyone was so lucky. Vincent “Jimmy” Caruso III, who was 8 when his dad died, was the most troubled of the group. In the mid-’60s, Caruso was shot in an argument and left paralyzed.
Life brought some strange twists and turns for the others, especially for Anthony Ricevuto. He’d been training as a musician when his dad died in 1954, a career path he abandoned. But nearly two decades later, he was asked to sing at a friend’s wedding and started performing again.
He performed a lot of the music from his childhood on Lambert Street. The ’50s had been the heyday of South Philly music – Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell – but the performer that Ricevuto really loved was Elvis Presley. By the early ’70s, Ricevuto started taking the stage as a full-blown Elvis impersonator, performing under the stage name of Anthony Richards.
Ricevuto moved to Center City and then Northeast Philadelphia before settling in Bucks County.
Irene Ricevuto died in the 1970s, but the three other widows from the crash – Rose Caruso, Rose Tulina and Marie Santarlas – are all alive and have resettled in the Philadelphia suburbs. Caruso and Santarlas eventually remarried.
For the most part, the children have been quite successful as adults. Eugene Santarlas III, who lives in Newtown, Bucks County, has worked for several local auto dealerships, while his brother, Joseph, runs a painting business on the Main Line. Their sister, Lynn, lives in Florida, and the three siblings have raised nine children.
Anthony Tulina, the concrete- truck driver, lives in Deptford, N.J., and is the father of three young children. His sister, Clara, and his mother live together in Turnersville, N.J.
Jimmy and Joyce Caruso both stayed in South Philadelphia. She has been running the luncheonette at 16th and Ritner for 17 years now.
Michael Ricevuto, an electrician, lives in Delaware County, and his sister, Anna, is in Lower Merion. In addition to impersonating Elvis, Anthony Ricevuto has had a long and successful career with SEPTA, where he is a manager at the transit agency’s headquarters in Center City. He’s already planning for his retirement in a couple of years.
But even with long afternoons in his suburban garden looming and pictures of grandkids on his desk, Ricevuto – like the others – still grasps for clues to the mystery of the dead fathers of Lambert Street.
He says he occasionally catches a flash of something when he plays with his young grandson. “He’s left-handed, just like my dad, and they’re built the same way, the same ears.”
Santarlas says that one day at a family get-together, his uncle explained to him the legacy that did not die on that hot July night.
“What was he like?” Santarlas asked.
” ‘If you lookinthemirror, you’re your father,’ ” his uncle told him. ” ‘You have a personality just like him. When you walk into a room, the room lights up.’
“That made me feel good.”
Writer bio: Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of “Tear Down This Myth” and “The Backlash.” He shared the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting with a group of New York Newsday reporters who covered a deadly Manhattan subway derailment in 1991.