‘So grateful we made it:’ Ellicott City store owner’s story of survival, heartbreak

WASHINGTON — After Joan Eve Shea-Cohen’s glass antique chests toppled and crashed from torrents of water invading her shop on Ellicott City’s Main Street, she was trapped with her longtime friend Gary Weltner.

Shea-Cohen, who will turn 75 in the next few weeks, has a long history in Ellicott City — her business, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles has been devastated twice by flooding in two separate locations.

On Sunday, Shea-Cohen and Weltner were forced to make a daring escape as floodwaters forced their way into her shop. The experience has left her coming to grips with what might have been.

In 1996, Shea-Cohen shared a booth at Ellicott City’s Antique Depot — where about 70 vendors rent space — before buying her “dream store” at 8113 Main St.

“It was 1,000 square feet, all my own. I loved that store,” she said wistfully.

Until the July 2016 floodwaters came.

Joan Eve Shea-Cohen’s first look at her antique shop on Main Street, in historic Ellicott City, after this week’s flooding. In 2016, she “lost everything” at her store, but reopened a few doors down. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Before Sunday’s flood, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen) (Joan Eve Shea Cohen)
Joan Eve Shea-Cohen (right) has had two Main Street antique stores devastated by flooding in historic Ellicott City. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Joan Eve Shea-Cohen (right) has had two Main Street antique stores devastated by flooding in historic Ellicott City. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen) (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
A glass case at Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles. Before Sunday's flood, the shop was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
A glass case at Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles. The case was full of irreplaceable antiques and was destroyed in Sunday’s flooding. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen) (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Before Sunday's flood, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Before Sunday’s flood, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles was full of irreplaceable antiques like this cabinet. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen) (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Before Sunday's flood, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Before Sunday’s flood, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen) (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
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Joan Eve Shea-Cohen (right) has had two Main Street antique stores devastated by flooding in historic Ellicott City. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
A glass case at Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles. Before Sunday's flood, the shop was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Before Sunday's flood, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)
Before Sunday's flood, Joan Eve Classics & Collectibles was full of irreplaceable antiques. (Courtesy Joan Eve Shea-Cohen)

“We were next door to Caplan’s on the curve of the street. Our two stores were the two worst hit,” she said. “We lost everything.”

Shea-Cohen witnessed the 2016 destruction on television. She had left the shop late in the afternoon, because the air conditioning wasn’t working well.

However, late Sunday afternoon she was in her new store at 8069 Main St., with Weltner who she described as “my dear friend, who’s retired, and knows everything about everything.”

The pair noticed the water building up on Main Street and, with lessons learned from 2016, Shea-Cohen and Weltner began to relocate items within the shop.

“As soon as we started moving things around, in came all this water and the floor buckled,” she recalled.

Glass showcases, standing 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide, crashed to the floor.

“I said ‘Gary, we gotta get out of here, I don’t wanna drown in here,'” she said.

The pressure of floodwaters storming down Main Street forced the front door closed, she said. Weltner had to break the door’s window with an antique candlestick phone from an old telephone operator’s switchboard in order to get them to safety.

As the water reached her waist, Shea-Cohen described her friend scraping the broken glass from the window, and hoisting her through it.

“He had me, and I held onto him,” she described, tearfully. “We got out.”

Rather than attempt to ford the water flowing down Main Street, the two struggled toward a small bridge crossing the Tiber Branch creek, which snakes through and under buildings.

“My neck is still sore from staying up like this,” she demonstrates, “so I wouldn’t swallow that horrible, contaminated water.”

Holding onto a metal fence across the bridge, the two fought to get out of the floodwaters.

“And then the fence started to give way, and I said, ‘Gary, we’re going to end up in the Tiber — the fence is falling.'”

Before the bridge was washed away, Shea-Cohen and Weltner got behind the Wagon Wheel Antique Shop on a side street.

As the water continued to rise, the pair climbed to higher ground on a balcony. They kicked their way into the second-story residence of an acquaintance, where they waited “in this wet, and yucky clothing” until a friend brought them to safety.

“Ironically, they took us down to the Antique Depot where I started 22 years ago,” she said.

Shea-Cohen and Weltner were escorted in a golf cart to survey the damage at her shop midweek. They saw the skeleton of the shop and the destruction of irreplaceable antiques which “had been locked up in that glass case.”

Asked if she planned to rebuild, Shea-Cohen said no.

But, with more than two decades in Ellicott City, that could change.

Right now, she is just glad to make it out alive with Weltner.

“I love that man, to the end of the earth,” she said. “I feel blessed God gave me these strong genes, because I don’t know how come we made it — but we made it.”

WTOP’s Michelle Basch contributed to this report. 


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