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Tense Rescues Follow Massive Water Main Break

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.

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.

Among those rescued was Sharon Schoem, who was on her way to work at Potomac Elementary School just before 8 a.m. when a wall of rocks, water and dirt came rushing toward her car. She thought about turning around, but feared she would not have time.

She put her Nissan Altima in park and, with shaking hands, used her cell phone to call her fiancé.

"Oh my God," she recalled saying. "It looks like I'm in a river."

As water washed over the roof of her car, she could no longer see out the windows. She worried that the current would tip the car over.

Behind her, firefighter Anthony Bell and two colleagues were just starting the day with a drive up River Road. Bell was at the wheel of the truck when "the road literally exploded" and water started pouring over cars, he said.

The three firefighters put on swift-water rescue suits but decided it would not be safe to wade through rushing water to the trapped drivers. So they drove their truck from car to car, pulling four people to safety, including Schoem.

"We made a decision," said Bell, a 22-year veteran of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department. "We were going to get them out."

Several drivers were taken to the fire department's headquarters on River Road, where blankets and space heaters were waiting. Silvia Saldana said she cried, prayed and called her husband at their Springfield home three times, asking him to pray for her as she sat trapped in her Subaru, fearing she would die.

"I thought, 'I guess this is my day,' " Saldana, 56, said in Spanish with tears in her eyes as she warmed up at the Cabin John Volunteer Fire station, where rescuers took her.

Neustadt said the depth and speed of the current also made it too dangerous for workers to reach the site where the 44-year-old pipe had ruptured and turn off the valve. Instead, workers cut the supply from the Potomac Filtration Plant to reduce the amount of water flowing through the pipe, which is a direct line from the plant. They closed two valves, one above the break and one below it, to isolate the rupture, Neustadt said.

The flow had subsided substantially by 11:30 a.m. Because the supply from the filtration plant was affected, customers as far east as Silver Spring were experiencing low water pressure.

The final rescues took place about 9:30 a.m., when two women were pulled from a white Nissan into a flat-bottomed rescue boat that was tethered to a helicopter hovering overhead. Rescue workers guided the boat to the side of the flooded road, and the women, clinging to ropes, pulled themselves up a wooded embankment to dry land.

At least one rescuer had to be rescued himself, after the boat he had used to ferry two women to safety became filled with water. Fire Capt. Frank Doyle said Lt. Patrick Mitchell climbed into a one-seat wire basket that had been lowered from a helicopter and was carried to dry land.

Officials have warned for years that the system is in need of repairs, saying many pipes are decades old and worn down by ground water and acidic soil. Last year, the system reported a record 2,129 pipe breaks, which generally result in cut-offs in service and road flooding.

The sanitary commission on average replaces about 25 miles of pipe a year. But in February, the representatives from Montgomery and Prince George's counties who make up the sanitary commission opted not to assess an additional fee of $20 per month that had been proposed to fund a more widespread pipe replacement.

The six commissioners had given preliminary approval of the fee, but after a public outcry, the Prince George's representatives withdrew their support, saying the measure was unfair to low-income customers. Their decision was harshly criticized by then-WSSC General Manager Andrew D. Brunhart, who was finishing out his contract after the board had voted not to renew it.

"In my view, the public will no longer be able to trust the system that delivers water to residents," Brunhart said.

Montgomery school officials said schools throughout the county were told to close early because so many schools in the southern part of the county were affected, and county bus service does not allow for a staggered schedule.

After-school sports were canceled. But the school system said community activities scheduled for this afternoon and evening would take place in most county school facilities, except for those in 13 schools with low water pressure or no water. Aftercare would be available in all school buildings that have water, officials said. Day-care providers at schools without water were to call parents directly to make arrangements for their children.

During this morning's rescues, crews used regular boats, boats lowered from helicopters and the wire baskets to carry people to safety, fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said. Such equipment would more typically be for river or ocean rescues, he said, but were deemed appropriate because of the volume of water that covered the pavement and the velocity at which the current was moving.

"We've used ropes and rigging, guiding some of our rescue workers into the scene, and we've walked some people out," Piringer told reporters at the scene. "There were some elderly folks, there were some children and everyone in between."

John C. White, a WSSC spokesman, said engineers were trying to shut down three valves that supplied water to the ruptured pipe. They successfully closed one valve, he said, and were working on another.

"It's more complicated than turning off a faucet," he said. "It's like turning a big wheel."

He said it was still not known when all the valves would be shut off, how many people would lose service, where and for how long. He also said investigators had not yet discovered the cause of the break because they had not had a chance to examine it closely.

"We won't be able to do that until we get a look at the ground," White said. Although the pipe is 44 years old, White said that is not particularly old as pipes go.

At its peak, White said, the 66-inch pipe was spewing 150,000 gallons of water a minute. That figure has dropped, he said, but he did not know by how much.

White said there were no health advisories connected with the rupture, and no plans yet to advise residents to boil water.

Last month, Prince George's County residents were asked to boil water for five days in response to a major water main break near Largo, which created the possibility that contaminants would seep into the water.

The WSSC was recently the subject of a study by a citizens group based in Montgomery County spurred by another water main break over the summer. The study by the Maryland Tax Education Foundation concluded that the water company operates with efficiency comparable to other publicly-owned utilities but is less efficient than privately-held companies.

The group found that the WSSC's infrastructure, including miles of water and sewer pipes, is in dire need of replacement, a fact that the utility's managers have been highlighting. The study also found that it has cost more for the WSSC to replace pipelines than other utilities.

WSSC managers disagreed with some parts of the study but agreed with the foundation's conclusion that the utility needs to replace infrastructure.

Montgomery County officials have set up a hotline at 240-777-4200 for residents concerned about water quality.

Staff writers Nelson Hernandez, Leonard Bernstein, William Branigin, Rosalind S. Helderman and Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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