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Close Calls in the Rising Waters

Tuesday's Torrential Rain Produced Heavy Flooding, Daring Rescues

By Brigid Schulte and Arielle Levin Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page B01

David Polikoff, a Montgomery County firefighter, had never seen floodwaters moving so fast as he jumped off his truck late Tuesday evening. Massachusetts Avenue looked like the rapids he had watched kayakers hurl through on television.

Three cars with four people in them were stranded near the intersection of Massachusetts and Little Falls Parkway, and the water was rising.

Emma Setchell of Australia and Ruari Markham and Clifford the dog, both of Takoma Park, watch the Sligo Creek Parkway cleanup. (Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)

A Night of Flash Flooding
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Polikoff had watched others perform rescues in fast-moving water, but he had never done it himself. He knew that the swift-water rescue experts were on their way.

"But we couldn't wait," he said.

He and his partners, Peter Mayo and Dave Horwatt, donned life jackets and waded into the waist-high flash flood -- one of many unleashed by more than four inches of rain that drenched some parts of the Washington region Tuesday evening, falling in some places in less than two hours.

With so much rain falling so fast, low-lying roads, underpasses, creeks and canals burst to overflowing. Most of the floodwater had receded by yesterday morning. Crews worked to clear debris and tree limbs from roadways and to restore power to downed traffic lights in time for the afternoon rush hour.

One of the worst backups was on westbound Interstate 66 in Virginia, where debris blocking a storm-water drain near the Route 7 interchange created pools of water as much as six feet deep and caused traffic to back up for miles from 10 p.m. Tuesday until 2 p.m. yesterday.

D.C. officials wrestled with a "washout" on 16th Street NW that tore apart the base of the road near Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Floodwaters rising to four feet at the Silver Spring Metro station knocked out the automatic train control for the stretch of Red Line track between Glenmont and Silver Spring yesterday morning. That forced train operators to run the trains manually, which significantly reduced speeds, spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Metro workers spent the day pumping water from the flooded area and repairing or replacing electronic equipment.

Motorists unaware of the depth of the water on the roadways -- and how quickly it rose -- became stranded throughout the region Tuesday night.

"Usually, we see flash flooding in an isolated area," said Pete A. Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. "But this was in three distinct areas all at the same time." Cars in Sligo Creek Park, Rock Creek Park and low-lying areas near the Potomac River were stranded. Rescue crews were busy from about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday until long after the rains stopped, and the water began to recede around midnight, he said.

Polikoff, 35, a 17-year firefighting veteran, knew that just six inches of floodwater is enough to knock a man off his feet. Two feet can, within seconds, send a car over a ditch or turn it upside down. He and his team members waded in water up to their waists to the first car, where two women sat huddled on the roof as the water rushed over the hood.

Once the women were fitted with life jackets and walked to safety, Polikoff and his team urged two other men, trapped in their cars with the water rising to their windows, to climb out. Standing in an eddy of slow-moving water, the firefighters hurled a 50-foot rope with a life ring and pulled the two men to safety, one at a time. The second man was rescued just as his car began to slide out from under him. It sailed across the road about 60 feet, Polikoff said.

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