Water Main Break Forces Dramatic Rescue of Nine
'The Road Literally Exploded'

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.

The pipe burst along a hilly section of the road, turning the downhill section into a river. At its height, the break spewed 150,000 gallons a minute onto the road.

The water main burst just before 8 a.m., and dispatchers began fielding 911 calls from stranded motorists moments later.

"I have a child in the car! I don't want the car to wash away!" one woman told a dispatcher, breathing heavily into the phone. "Hurry up, I'm so scared."

On the recording of the call, she can be heard consoling her 9-year-old child: "It's okay, sweetie. Don't worry, my darling."

Another woman pleaded for help as water poured into her black Honda Accord, reaching her knees. As the dispatcher instructed her to get as much of her body out of the frigid water as possible, the woman began screaming that her car was moving.

"No, no, please!" the woman screamed. "I'm going down!"

As it happened, three firefighters from Cabin John were just then heading up River Road in a fire engine, on their way to withdraw money from an ATM for the night's dinner fund. Near Seven Locks Road, traffic was backed up, and they saw what appeared to be smoke rising from an uphill section of River Road. Thinking there might be a car fire or toxic spill, they began pulling on their gear.

They arrived to find motorists stranded and water gushing.

"The road literally exploded, and a glacier of water started pouring over cars," said one of the three, Anthony Bell, a 22-year veteran who was driving.

Bell pulled the engine closer to the stranded vehicles. Phelps changed into a dry suit and grabbed a pike pole, similar to a tall walking stick, to help determine where pavement might have washed out in front of him as he waded into the raging water.

First, he reached Sharon Schoem, a teacher from Loudoun County. She had earlier called her fiance. "Oh my God," she recalled telling him. "It looks like I'm in a river."

Phelps decided there wasn't time to put life jackets on her or the others who were close enough for the firefighters to reach by truck or on foot. Of particular concern were the force of the water and the debris swirling in it, including pieces of asphalt six feet across.

"We were worried cars were going to get swept down the road," Phelps said.

In many ways, the rescue was more dangerous than those more routinely performed on the Potomac River, firefighters said. On the Potomac, rescuers know rocks and gullies well. Not so on a washed-out road full of debris and vehicles.

Phelps also reached Silvia Saldana, a nanny from Springfield who was headed to her employer's home in Potomac. A car in front of Saldana's had stalled and slid backward, hitting her car on the way.

"I thought, 'I guess this is my day,' " said Saldana, 56, speaking through a Spanish interpreter later as her eyes teared up.

Reaching two others, in a blue Kia Rio, Phelps opened the hatchback, motioned for them to crawl out and shouted, "Fast! Now!"

Up the hill, firefighters couldn't get to a pair of vehicles surrounded by water. Sgt. Nathan Wheelock had arrived in a Maryland State Police helicopter stationed at Andrews Air Force base. He lowered a basket 120 feet, knifing it through an opening of less than 40 feet across between trees and power lines.

Wheelock guided the basket to the window of a car, where a woman crawled inside, and hoisted the basket up. "Thank you," the woman said, grabbing Wheelock in a bear hug.

He lowered the basket again. A woman and her young son climbed in and were hoisted up.

All three had water and ice on their clothes. They were flown to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, where they were evaluated and released, officials said.

Farther uphill, and closer to the water main rupture, helicopters could not maneuver to get baskets close to the cars. That's where Espinola was trapped until the boat arrived.

To her, it was an answer to her prayers -- to Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. Anthony, more saints, her late relatives.

"Please don't take me too soon, Mother," she remembers praying. "I want to see you, but not yet."

Staff writers Daniel de Vise, Nelson Hernandez, Rosalind S. Helderman and Debbie Cenziper contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company