Her clothes were soiled. Several items were destroyed.

J.E. Brown, 57, of Manassas, pulled a load of whites out of her washing machine on May 15 and found them covered with muddy brown stains. She was up until midnight doing and redoing laundry.

"Oh, it was awful," she recalled.

She wasn't alone.

A water main break had created an emergency for the city's water system, tainting much of the water with brown and black sediment.

It ranked "right up there" among the worst water main breaks ever in Manassas, said Jim Johnston, the city's water and sewer superintendent. A total of 3.5 million gallons was lost as crews worked around the clock for several days flushing the system.

As it turned out, the substance -- mainly iron and manganese -- posed no health threat, officials said. But residents and business owners were asked to run their taps until the water was clear.

Now, nearly three months later, Manassas is seeking more than $40,000 in damages from the construction company that caused the problem, Johnston said.

On May 15, workers from the company -- which city officials won't name -- breached a 12-inch water main while they were excavating on the city's western end near the intersection of Godwin Drive and Nokesville Road. In the process, water flow changed direction in some city water lines, dislodging sediment.

To fix the system and respond to more than 3,000 phone calls from residents and businesses, the city paid about $18,000 worth of overtime. Another $5,000 in water was lost.

The incident also cost local businesses and residents more than $16,000 in damages, Johnston said. The city will ask the construction company to pay those claims directly, he said.

"The city is not paying the bill for the cost of the contractor's mistake," said Johnston. "And therefore, the water rates won't have to go up."

The most expensive claims were commercial, those filed by car washes and laundromats, Johnston said. Some equipment had to be cleaned or replaced and business was lost.

In addition, there were residents such as Brown who lost water and clothing.

Johnston said he doesn't expect the process to end up in court; insurance should cover the losses.

"Contractors do cause damage periodically and they have established insurance policies to cover any claims," he said. "I would expect [this] to go pretty smoothly outside the court."

Meanwhile, several residents have already received credit for water lost in the incident.

Brown was among the residents who sought a refund. The process wasn't seamless, she said.

A few days after the water break, Brown read an article in The Washington Post reporting that the city would not charge for the extra water used.

But when she received her next water bill, no credit appeared.

"I said, 'Oh, wait a minute,' " Brown said. " 'I thought you were going to take some money off.' "

So she called city officials. They agreed to credit her $6.35, the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of water, she said.

The city never had a blanket refund policy, officials said, because nearly all of the 3.5 million gallons lost came at the expense of the city, not homes or businesses, said Ana Davis, the city's utilities services manager. The water drained out of hydrants.

"The water going through the customers' pipes was at a minimum," she said. "When I look at the records, there was no impact on customers' bills." Because of that, refunds were unnecessary, Davis said.

In the days after the break, before water officials could analyze data from the incident, they did agree to several refunds. Those are no longer available, Davis said.

But residents and businesses whose property was damaged as a result of the break can still file claims, Johnston said.

To report such losses, customers may visit or contact the city's water department during business hours at 703-257-8380 or by mail. They should be prepared to provide documentation.