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Tense Rescues Follow Massive Water Main Break

Emergency personnel rescue trapped motorists from a flooded street after a 66-inch water main burst in Montgomery County Tuesday morning.

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By Debbi Wilgoren, Debbie Cenziper and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 23, 2008; 5:47 PM

Utility workers have restored water service to all customers in southern Montgomery County, but a major commuting route remains closed following a massive water main break this morning that forced dramatic rescues of trapped motorists on River Road in Bethesda, authorities said.

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Water remains safe to drink because the 8 a.m. break did not cause pressure in the system to dip low enough that contaminants could seep into the 66-inch pipe, said Jim Neustadt, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Water pressure may remain low while pressure rebuilds in the system, he said.

"We think we're in pretty good shape right now," Neustadt said. "We are very, very sorry and deeply regret the inconvenience we've caused everybody, particularly those who were stuck in the road and in that water."

The affected section of River Road, between Seven Locks Road and Bradley Boulevard, remained closed throughout the day and may take several days to repair, said Kellie Boulware, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, which maintains River Road. "With the temperatures being what they are and the fact that the water's been gushing so long, we won't know until we get our engineers in there," Boulware said. She said motorists are advised "definitely to take alternate routes until repairs are made."

Neustadt said officials do not know what caused the break in the 44-year old pipeline, which originates at one of WSSC's two main filtration plants and terminates several miles away in Kensington. However, aging pipes and extreme weather have been factors in other similar breaks, including one this summer that led to a three-day boil-water advisory in a large part of Montgomery.

The massive underground pipe rupture flooded River Road with a four-foot wall of rushing water this morning -- trapping more than a dozen motorists, blocking a major commuter artery and forcing all Montgomery schools and some businesses to shut down because of low water pressure.

Trapped motorists described rushing brown, muddy water full of tree limbs, rocks and chunks of pavement banging into their cars and causing their vehicles to slide into each other. One woman said she cried and prayed, while others said they called loved ones from cell phones until rescuers arrived. One driver said he kept his foot pressed to the brake pedal, even as freezing water began filling his car and climbing up his leg as his engine conked out along with his car's heater.

The whirring of rescuers' helicopter rotors added to the stiff winds already blowing the frigid, 17-degree air, spraying water up over the trapped vehicles. Some motorists were taken to hospitals to be treated for hypothermia and evaluated for other injuries, fire officials said.

One firefighter who pulled four people from three cars by wading to them said the large chunks of pavement and other debris in the fast-flowing waters made it one of the most dangerous water rescues he's made in 10 years. One rescuer said asphalt chunks reached as long as six feet, while another said boulders as large as laundry baskets rushed past in what looked like white water rapids.

Power outages in the area affected more than 100 Pepco customers. Two days before the Christmas holiday, nine Giant Foods supermarkets in Bethesda, Potomac, Rockville and as far south as Chevy Chase and Northwest Washington reported a lack of water pressure but they remained open, a company spokesman said.

Marriott's corporate headquarters, which has about 1,000 employees, closed at noon because low water pressure was affecting bathrooms and the fire suppression system, a Marriott spokesman said.

The rescues, broadcast live on CNN and local television stations, included that of a woman and child who climbed out of a black sport-utility vehicle and into a wire basket that had been lowered from a helicopter and was swinging in the wind.


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