Everything started going in slow motion last Tuesday morning when Zoe Cadore realized that her brand-new iPhone was slipping from her fingers.
She was downtown, on the phone with her Lyft driver, annoyed that he couldn't find her. She works at a trade association and had a meeting to get to. Her ungloved fingers were cold. Her phone was in one hand. She stumbled in the crosswalk and the phone — a rose gold iPhone 8, Zoe's for less than a week — went flying.
Time stood still. The phone could have landed anywhere. Where it landed was in a storm drain, swallowed by the dark orifice at the northwest corner of 13th Street and New York Avenue NW.
The chilly city continued to move around Zoe: the office types scurrying to work at the Inter-American Development Bank, the panhandlers outside the McDonald's, the tourists waiting for the National Museum of Women in the Arts to open, the cyclists shoving their mounts into the Capital Bikeshare dock . . .
Who are you gonna call when your magical little lifeline — your phone — is suddenly in the sewer? Not that you can actually call anyone . . .
Zoe walked a few blocks north to the fire station on 13th Street between K and L, and soon a crew from Engine Company 16 rode to the incident location.
When I came upon the scene on my way into work, I saw a firefighter flat on his belly on the sidewalk, peering into the sewer, a manhole cover resting nearby. Three other firefighters were looking into the hole. So was Zoe.
It was a tableau worthy of Norman Rockwell. They looked as if they were ice fishing on a lake of concrete and brick.
"At first we could see it," Zoe told me later.
The phone was submerged in water, but it seemed retrievable.
One of those dustpans on a long handle was borrowed from McDonald's, and a gray-haired firefighter reached down and dipped it into the water.
What is in those drains, just under the sidewalk? This one seemed to have a lot of plastic water bottles, which the firefighter lifted out with the dustpan and deposited in a nearby trash can.
This action made the water turbid, cloudy, opaque. The maintenance engineer from the office building on the corner came out holding a sump pump outfitted with a long black hose. The power cord was unrolled across the sidewalk and plugged in. The pump was lowered into the hole and switched on.
"Suck away," said a firefighter.
Reddish-brown water spewed from the end of the hose and then, in the way of all water, it sought the lowest point and flowed back into the drain.
A firefighter stretched the hose farther away so the water would go somewhere else.
"It must be something important," said a woman who, like me, had stopped to watch. "Keys, a cellphone. But if it's a cellphone, it probably wouldn't work. Keys you could just wash off."
The firefighters seemed stymied. Then the little radios clipped to their jackets chirped. They had another call. They promised to come back and try again later.
They were true to their word, but, alas, no amount of peering and sucking and reaching could bring back Zoe's phone. It sleeps with the fishes now. [Sad emoticon.]
"I'm grateful to the team for their help and patience," Zoe emailed me later. "They were out there in the cold for almost 45 minutes trying every technique imaginable."
It struck me that I had witnessed the modern equivalent of a cat stuck up a tree: not exactly something that would seem to be in a firefighter's job description, but if not them, then who?
"Firemen are helpers," Vito Maggiolo, public information officer with the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, told me later. "When someone comes to them with a problem, they typically do everything they can to resolve it.
"It's kind of in the nature of what firefighters are made up of. They don't like to pass up a citizen in need. And they like a challenge: How do we solve this problem?"
That's nice to hear, actually. Of course, the real moral of this story is this: Hold on tightly to your cellphones, especially when you're near a drain.
Frankly, iPhones seem designed to be dropped. They're so slippery.
What's the most extreme lengths you've gone to to retrieve something that was lost? Were you successful? Email your story — with "Lost and Found" in the subject line — to me at
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