Exploding toilets injure 2 federal workers

September 28, 2011

Washington is known for explosive situations. Just this week Congress pulled itself back from the verge of a government shutdown — the third in less than a year.

But the explosive situation in the General Services Administration headquarters on Monday was a doozy, even for the nation’s capital. Toilets literally blew up into tiny shards of porcelain, seriously injuring two federal employees. One was taken to the hospital.

The toilet explosions became irresistible Web fodder for snickering and bad potty humor. And just as irresistible for many was the symbolism it provided for those highly frustrated with Washington these days.

The rare accident, which started in a water tank on the roof of the agency’s capital region headquarters Monday morning, quickly became representative of Washington’s ills — from the bureaucratic response to the venom it released against the government and its employees.

“How many $1,200 toilet seats has the government bought, and here we have a toilet going boom!” mused Chuck White, vice president of technical and code services for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. “I’m sure people think this is just one more example of our government in action.”

By the time his wife in Indiana found his expert-weighs-in quotes in the Huffington Post on Tuesday night — in a story under “Weird News” with a video of a plumber checking toilet pressure — the tale of the exploding toilet had gone viral.

“A new way to get government employees off their butts,” a reader wrote in one of the tamer comments. “Now we need to install the same equipment in the halls of Congress.”

The halls of the GSA’s public affairs office went silent for 48 hours.

The D.C. fire department was called to Seventh and D streets SW at 11:50 a.m. Spokesman Pete Piringer said his crew got a call about an injured person on the fourth floor and was directed to the restroom, where a woman had serious cuts to her leg from “flying debris.”

Another toilet on the first floor had exploded within minutes of the first one, injuring another employee using the bathroom at the same time.

The 2,500 federal employees in the eight-story building were sent a memo declaring the 64 bathrooms and 320 stalls off-limits because the plumbing had malfunctioned and the situation was dangerous. The regional headquarters for the government’s real-estate agency is shared by the GSA and the Department of Homeland Security, which leases space. The two people injured were DHS employees.

The assignment desk at WUSA-TV Channel 9 got the memo in an e-mail from a viewer.

“It had all the earmarks of a prank,” news director Fred D’Ambrosi said Wednesday. A reporter aired the story as a brief voice-over on the 7 p.m. newscast. CNN linked to it, and the story took off on the Internet.

GSA spokesman William Marshall Jr. issued a statement Monday describing a “building mechanical incident” that injured at least one employee.

He re-issued the statement 24 hours later, with assurances that the toilets were working again. He declined to be interviewed about what caused the explosion, the identities of the workers, their condition or which agency employs them.

Or answer the question: Can a toilet really explode?

Yes. But it’s a perfect storm, written up in plumbing textbooks and witnessed by few in the trade.

Water in a building as old as this one, built between 1930 and 1935, needs to flow at a higher pressure to reach the top floors. A storage tank boosts the pressure, using air as a spring to push water through the pipes.

GSA spokeswoman Emily Barocas said Wednesday that the tank’s control system malfunctioned, plunging the water level below normal and allowing air to seep into the pipes, where it shouldn’t be because it gets compressed.

The air hit the toilet bowls when they were flushed, and the result was not pretty.

“You get a geyser,” White said. “A recipe for disaster.”

Although the average pressure in a water pipe is about 25 pounds per square inch, the slug of air in the GSA toilets was probably released around 60 pounds, he said.

By 1:30 p.m. the toilets were working again, Barocas said. DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said the agency is “providing any assistance that we can” to its injured employees.

Maintenance and inspection of the plumbing system is shared by the agency’s staff members and by contractors.

“To have an explosion like that, it means the pressure had been building up,” said Bruce Williams, national council president for the GSA chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Who was responsible for checking the water pressure?”

No answers yet. The incident is under investigation.

Read more on PostPolitics.com and the Fed Page

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Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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