Sinkhole keeps downtown D.C. fixated


Spectators take a moment to observe and photograph a large sinkhole on 14th Street NW in Washington on Wednesday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

A massive sinkhole that has snarled traffic in the heart of the District may not be fixed until at least Friday, authorities said.

The gaping pit opened up Tuesday at 14th and F streets in Northwest Washington, and the spectacle has drawn throngs of onlookers eager to observe the unusual mess up close.

Extending from the crosswalk on the north side of 14th Street nearly into the middle of the intersection, the sinkhole is longer than a Ford Explorer and about double the width of a Metrorail car.

“Everyone wants to see the sinkhole,” said Waldemar Velez, a security officer who works nearby.

Ayub Abdullah came down to take photos for his two children.

“It goes to show you, no place is safe,” said Abdullah, 38, of Fort Washington. “It can happen anywhere.”

The scene, a few blocks from the White House, is a reminder of the fragile state of much of the country’s aging infrastructure. Investigators from the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority are working to determine the cause of the sinkhole, but the sewer line was built in 1897, and the need to replace much of the nation’s water and sewer mains is well-documented.

For commuters who use 14th Street, the sinkhole posed a far more immediate problem, forcing them to find another route through the area. Cars and buses were being diverted, and that was expected to continue until repairs are completed.

The hole was discovered when inspectors checking on the status of the plate on the road over the weekend noticed that it had shifted, said Monica Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the District Department of Transportation.

Since at least last week, there has been a hole in the road at the edge of a large metal plate, said Mark Krieger, a bartender at the Hamilton, which looks out onto the sinkhole.

But Jill McClanahan, a spokeswoman for D.C. Water, said it was unclear whether that was related to the sinkhole.

McClanahan said concrete fell into a brick sewer line 15 feet below the road, followed by dirt and asphalt.

The sewer line is also below multiple utilities and old trolley tracks, which complicates the repair, she said. McClanahan said officials have been in touch with utility companies and none have reported any outages.

The contractors repairing the sinkhole brought half a dozen pieces of heavy equipment to the scene, including a crane, a dump truck and an excavator. The excavator was digging dirt off the pipe Wednesday, its long mechanical arm reaching down 17 feet to the base of the hole to clear out mounds of earth.

A sinkhole in the District conjures up images of others that have captured attention recently, most notably the Florida pit that killed a man in February.

“I thought about what happened to that family that lost their house and lost their brother,” said Krieger, 31, as he watched the construction.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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