SAN FRANCISCO, California - Construction crews boarded up a San Francisco hotel then filled it with rubble and debris after a diligent housekeeper discovered a mountain of cigarette ash behind a satirist's desk on the fifth floor.
She called the Hotel Allium superintendent to request that he send a second maid to assist her in the room. Surprised, he went to inspect the room for himself, then alerted authorities to what he had found faster than you can say, "Why, yes, we do offer non-smoking rooms."
"I like to keep my desktop clean," explained Winston Morris, the room's resident nicotine junkie. "So every once in a while, I empty my ashtray, then blow the ashes off the top of the desk."
Trouble is, said geologists, quite a few of those ashes ended up behind the desk in his hotel room. In fact, over time, those small deposits accumulated into a huge mountain of ash that eventually threatened to overwhelm the Hotel Allium.
San Francisco mayor Gavin Newport said the deposit is similar to a gray outcrop that reduced a nearby apartment building to rubble and blanketed the neighborhood in a cloud of settling ash that clogged city streets just two months ago.
That collapse ruptured pipes and resulted in damages that cost the city nearly $150 million in repairs, he said.
Workers reinforced portions of the building below the satirist's humble abode, then filled in the rest of the Hotel Allium room by room with large rocks, dirt and other debris to help stabilize the mountain of ash.
Late this month or early in July, crews will begin excavating a pit at the site that will ultimately be traversed by a new tunnel between Geary and California Streets West of Nob Hill. Trucks will remove excavated ash as crews prepare to bore the new tunnel.
The city held public meetings to discuss uses for the new property. A spokesman said the board still must decide whether to keep the land and lease it to a developer, or sell the mountain of ash outright, possibly with requirements that it be developed within guidelines.
Community leaders said a mix of housing is important to keep a diverse population of people on San Francisco's newest geographical feature. "We can't let our rights go up in smoke," wheezed activist Virginia Slim. "If they have their way, they'll cover it with nothing but non-smoking condos!"
Geologists said core samples of layers from deposits at the site indicate the smoker's lungs are likely more than 350 million years old.