Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Huge water main break closes schools

December 23, 2008 - 12:25pm

BETHESDA, Md. -- Montgomery County schools are closing 2.5 hours early after Tuesday morning's huge water main break.

The water main break sent several feet of water rushing on to River Road, trapping terrified drivers and passengers in their vehicles during the morning commute.

Rescuers used helicopters, boats and firetrucks to pull at least 14 people after the 66-inch water main burst.

The frigid waters in some areas were at least four feet deep.

"The road was fine, then all of the sudden a gush of water came along with boulders and parts of trees," Sharon Schoem, a woman who was rescued, told Channel 7.

"I tried to turn to get out of it. I couldn't. My car just got blocked in. The water was going over the top of the car."

Some of the people rescued have been treated for hypothermia, according to Montgomery County fire department spokesman Pete Piringer. Temperatures during the rescues were in the 20s.

None of the injuries was life-threatening.

Schools Close

"Due to the emergency water outage situation, all schools will close 2.5 hours early Tuesday. Bus transportation will be provided for all students who normally ride the bus," says a news release from Montgomery County schools.

"A decision about community activities in school buildings this afternoon will be made later today. All day care will remain open except at schools where there is no water in the building. Those day care providers will contact parents directly to inform them if they are closed.

"The water main break along River Road has caused widespread water outages in schools across the lower part of the county. The problems are affecting the availability of water and heat in numerous schools."

River Road Closed

River Road, which is closed in both directions between Seven Locks and Bradley Boulevard, was a raging torrent of water at the height of the break.

River Road will remain closed for an undetermined amount of time. Maryland State Highway crews will need to assess the road damage. It does appear there will be significant damage to River Road, a highway spokesman tells WTOP's Adam Tuss.


The water main is being shut off.

Because the closest valve was under water, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesman Jim Neustadt told WTOP the agency had to identify the next valve down the line.

WSSC identified three valves that needed to be shut down.

Most people will experience a water pressure drop when the valves are closed, but WSSC spokesman John White said at 10:15 a.m. that WSSC expects to have the issue resolved within hours. The burst pipe, which was installed in 1964, is not the only one to carry water to the area, he says.

WSSC spokeswoman Lyn Riggins says it's an "extraordinary situation" to have a main this large break.

This time of the year, it is not uncommon for there to be water main breaks in WSSC's aging system. Riggins tells WTOP the cold weather and fluctuations in temperatures haven't helped. Those conditions make pipes brittle.

"We have a pretty good idea of where the break is," Riggins said.

An e-mail alert Montgomery County sent out says after it takes WSSC several hours to isolate the break, it will take "possibly an additional 4 hours to re-pressurize water in Montgomery County. Water quality has not been impacted."

The water is safe to drink, WSSC says.


Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services has set up a hotline at 240-777-4200 to address any health issues resulting from the water main break.

The break affected Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring. The hospital says it experienced a loss in water pressure.

"As a result we cut off the water supply to several of our upper floors allowing pressure to normalize on our lower floors. At this time we are continuing with all scheduled surgeries, dialysis and normal operation," a news release from the hospital says.

Two people lower themselves into a basket from a helicopter. (Courtesy of Ch. 7)