For Utility Crews, It's a Rite of Winter

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

There was a feeling of inevitability in the cold, bitter air yesterday as three utility repairmen stood on Belton Street in Upper Marlboro, studying the water bubbling up beneath them.

Winter had been a long time coming this year, but they had known all along it was just a ruse. The cold stays away for only so long before it comes barging back, they said, and along with it come the water main breaks, the irate customers and the endless nights of work in the unforgiving wind.

"You're working one break after another for 16 hours straight," said repairman John Harley, 49. "You can't stop it, nothing can."

After a mild, even balmy, December and a temperate January, the cold seemed to settle in for good this week. And with the sudden swing downward, something had to give.

Yesterday, it was the pipes.

In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission raced to fix 67 water main breaks. Some cases were called in by residents who noticed low water pressure. Others -- including the one that forced a steady greenish stream onto Belton Street -- were more obvious.

But to repair the break, the three-member crew in Upper Marlboro first had to find it. So about 11 a.m., the repairmen turned off their noisy trucks and hooked their ears to contraptions that looked like industrial-size stethoscopes.

"You don't follow the water, you follow the sound," crew chief Chauncey Simmons said. In the middle of the abandoned street, all three listened for the telltale sound of gravel-filled water hitting metal piping -- tink-a-tink-tink -- and followed it until it surged in strong whooshes like an ocean wave.

That was just the beginning of their four-hour quest.

They would have to cut through asphalt, dig a five-foot hole, jump into the sludge and mire to find and seal the crack in the pipe by hand, and then refill the hole. All of it while fighting off the freezing wind.

Harley, the oldest on the crew, said 27 years in the snow, rain and sleet have taken a toll. The chilling dampness, he said, had crept past his skin and into his very bones.

"You know, when I was younger, I actually wanted the overtime" that comes with the extra hours, he said. "Now I'll take some good weather over this any day."

Simmons, the crew's youngest at 42, scoffed at the cold.

"I'm at the very top of my game," he said. "I love what I do. Heck, I even look forward to winters. Better this than an office job indoors, where someone's always looking over your shoulder and the walls are closing in on you."

The crew's third member -- Robert Thomas, 45 -- put a more philosophical spin on their work.

"The water mains are like everything else man makes in this world," he said. "It only lasts so long before it breaks down."

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