‘I know the power of water’: Artist, caretaker of historic Darby inn narrowly escapes flooding

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Blue Bell Inn, Darby, Pa. (Courtesy of the Library Company)

Blue Bell Inn, Darby, Pa. (Courtesy of the Library Company)

When Delia King stepped out of the second floor window of the historic Blue Bell Inn in Darby Tuesday morning, she knew she was leaving all of her possessions behind.

The floodwaters of Tropical Storm Isaias were about to take everything. When she was rescued by firefighters, all she had was her ID, her cell phone, and most importantly, her 9-year-old son Cyrus. Together, they joined more than 100 Delaware County residents displaced by the storm, along with countless business owners reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and now the floods.

King — an artist, formerly with Mural Arts Philadelphia and recently a resident at the Barnes Foundation — became the tenant and caretaker of the historic tavern five years ago. Built in 1766, the Blue Bell Inn survived the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, two devastating fires and countless other floods. It even has a ghost, legend has it, a British soldier killed on the porch in 1777 who swore with his dying breath, “I’ll never leave this accursed place.”

For King, Tuesday seemed cursed from the start.

That morning, she woke up to discover that a car had rammed into the Blue Bell’s covered porch overnight, taking out several awning support pillars. She called the city to report the damage, a normal part of her job as caretaker of the inn, which is managed by the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy. 

Then it began raining. The building on Cobbs Creek Parkway, just on the border of Darby and Southwest Philadelphia, is below street level, which is already flood-prone, so King moved her car to a higher parking spot, just in case. Some repairmen arrived to put in temporary supports for the awning.

As soon as the repairmen left, the rain came hard. King is used to seeing water threaten the historic house, but never this fast. When she looked out the second floor window, water was already pooling around her car, which she had believed was in a safe place.

“The water was coming onto the property, surrounding my car,” she said. “I ran downstairs and said, ‘Cyrus, we’re flooding.’”

In the time it took her to go downstairs, water had flooded the porch and started to come inside. Water was coming in through the door and penetrating the old stone walls.

“It was gushing through the walls,” said King, who realized this was an emergency — a moment of quick decisions that have drastic consequences. “At that point, it was abandon ship.”

Flood damage to the interior of Blue Bell Inn (Courtesy of Dalia King)

King opened the door and saw her car being submerged.

“At that moment, I could have gone out and saved the car,” said King, but she decided against it. “I grew up at the Shore. I know the power of water.”

Grabbing passports and cell phones, King and her son went up to the second floor and called for help. She watched her car get hit by floating debris and wash down the street.

 “My car was smashed. A tree went through it and it just floated away,” she said.

With nothing but the clothes on their backs and the phones and IDs in their pockets, King and Cyrus were rescued through the second floor window by firefighters, across that porch awning that had broken just hours before.

 They left the cat behind on the third floor to be retrieved later.

 “I didn’t have anyone to call, I didn’t know where I was going to go. My family all died in the last two or three years, and I’m divorced,” she said. “So it was, like, what am I going to do with a squirming cat?”

King expects everything else to be a total loss: Furniture, clothes, bedding. The masks she had been sewing to bring in additional income when her job as a substitute teacher dried up when schools closed because of the pandemic. Her finished artwork, which she stored in the basement, along with her tools and supplies.

Her son is staying with his father in Northern Liberties. King spent Wednesday at a friend’s house making phone calls. She learned her renter’s insurance will not cover flooding, but her car insurance might cover that loss. She’s leaning on SNAP benefits and county assistance for food, and hopes Delaware County’s emergency declaration will trigger help from FEMA. Friends have launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the family.

Natural disasters are not new to King. After Hurricane Sandy destroyed swaths of the Jersey Shore in 2012, King organized several other artists to make murals in newly blighted areas. Called Shore To Love, it was an effort to use art to help people reconnect with their homes and business after the devastation.

“I was interested in the notion of home and emotional distress,” she recalled. “One day you’re fine, the next day — boom — it’s gone.”

Back then, King empathized with people whose lives were suddenly upturned by a natural disaster. Now, she’s the one grappling with loss spurred by forces beyond her control.

“I kept telling my son, we have our health.” she said. “We can stand up. As long as you can stand up and move forward, you can get over this. We have to take our time, be patient and not be angry.”

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