Water Main Break Forces Dramatic Rescue of Nine

Emergency personnel rescue trapped motorists from a flooded street after a 66-inch water main burst in Montgomery County Tuesday morning.
By Dan Morse and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This, Marcia Espinola thought, must be what a tsunami is like.

One minute, the road beneath her was as dry as the 17-degree air outside. The next, a torrent of water carrying rocks and branches rushed toward her, crashing over the roof of her Honda CRV.

Trapped, Espinola thought about trying to wade to safety, she recalled. But what if the water swept her away? She doesn't know how to swim.

"I don't want to die here," she prayed. "My husband needs me."

Water piled up around her SUV yesterday morning, rising above the bottom of the window. Ice formed on her windshield. The heat cut off. She said she prayed so much that her throat went dry.

Minutes ticked by, and Espinola, 56, could see people gathering on the side of River Road near Potomac. She tried to scrawl her husband's phone number on the back of a gym schedule and hold it to the window. The pen was frozen. She rubbed it between her palms to get it to work.

"There were boulders coming down the road the size of laundry baskets," said Lt. Bill Phelps, a Montgomery firefighter. "It felt like whitewater rapids."

The water itself was less than two feet deep, but it moved so fast that it rose up around the cars in its path, Espinola's and a half dozen others.

More than an hour after Espinola's ordeal began, firefighters guided a 14-foot metal boat toward her, using ropes secured to a firetruck and held by rescuers at the edge of the torrent. Lt. Patrick Mitchell, a firefighter in the boat, opened the car door and helped Espinola aboard, and the boat carried her to safety.

She and eight others were plucked from vehicles after a 66-inch water main burst just outside the Capital Beltway. Espinola and another motorist, Maria Stosse, were rescued in the boat. Three climbed into a basket lowered 120 feet from a helicopter, and four were taken away by rescue workers who were able to get close in a firetruck. No one was seriously injured.

The rupture forced Montgomery schools to close early and caused water disruptions across a large swath of the southern part of the county. A one-mile section of River Road between Fenway Drive and Seven Locks Road could be closed through the weekend, officials said.

The break also brought renewed scrutiny to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the utility that provides water service to Montgomery and Prince George's counties. WSSC managers said they did not know what caused the break. There is no danger to the water supply, the utility said.

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