‘Wall of Water' Traps Motorists on Maryland Road

66-inch water main breaks along River Road

BETHESDA, Md.  -- Numerous motorists were rescued Tuesday morning after a 66-inch water main broke in the area of River Road and Bradley Boulevard in Montgomery County.

The water main broke just before 8 a.m., sending 150,000 gallons of water per minute down River Road.  As many as 18 cars may have been trapped in the water, which is said to be 3 to 4 feet high in some places. 

A helicopter rescued people using a basket and transported them to safety.  Crews in boats and a fire truck rescued others.

Pete Piringer, of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue, said nine people were rescued from their vehicles, including children and the elderly.  No serious injuries were reported, he said. Several people rescued were treated for hypothermia.

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"Picture a 4- or 5-foot wall of water hitting a vehicle," Piringer said.  "Some people did have several feet of water in their vehicles."

Some trees fell onto a power line and knocked down a utility poll, Piringer said. Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission crews can't begin digging to get to and repair the main until Pepco has moved those downed lines, which could take until at least midnight, meaning the repair process could be lengthy, WSSC spokeswoman Lyn Riggins said.

Two people in a minivan climbed into a basket lowered by a helicopter as the floodwaters raged past them, spraying water on a rescuer reaching out to save them, television images showed.

A three-man crew from Cabin John Station was running errands to the bank and to get supplies and saw the situation develop in front of them when they turned on to River Road. The crew called 911 and used their swift-water training to save four people.
Four people were rescued by helicopters. A Maryland State Police helicopter, manned by pilot Jim MacKay and flight paramedic Sgt. Nathan Wheelock, rescued a woman from one car and a woman and a child from another car.
The fourth person rescued by air was another rescuer, Lt. Pat Mitchell, who found himself unable to move in the rushing waters after saving two people. A Park Police helicopter crew dropped a basket down to save Mitchell.
Both helicopter crews attributed the successful rescues to great training.

River Road is closed between Bradley Boulevard near Congressional Country Club and Seven Locks Road.  Bradley and Seven Locks are the best alternate routes.

Motorists in the area are being detoured:

  • From I-495, northbound River Road traffic will be detoured to a right onto Seven Locks Road, a left onto MD 191 (Bradley Blvd) back to River Road.
  • Southbound River Road traffic will be detoured to a left onto MD 191 (Bradley Boulevard) to a right onto Seven Locks Road back to River Road.

Ride On Bus Route 36 and Metrobus T2 were rerouted. The Route 36 bus is not serving Seven Locks and River roads, instead staying on Bradley Boulevard to Connelly School.  The T2 Metrobus is detouring off River Road using Bradley Boulevard and Seven Locks Road to avoid the area.

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission crews shut off the main source of water to the broken pipe at the Potomac Water Plant at about 9:30 a.m.  Three other valves that feed into the pipe below the plant were located and shut off by 10:45 a.m.

Water service was restored throughout Montgomery County by about 2:30 p.m. WSSC said at 11 a.m. that it could take two to three hours to isolate where the water main broke and possibly an additional four hours to re-pressurize water in the county. WSSC said water quality has not been impacted, although NBCWashington.com has received reports from users of discolored water in Bethesda and elsewhere.

"It is a major transmission line -- 66 inches in diameter," WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt said of the broken water main. "That's a large pipeline."

The pipe was put into the ground in 1964, Neustadt said.  He said it extends from the Potomac Water Filtration Plant to the Mormon Temple.

There was concern that some cars may have been swept downstream by the rushing water.  Rescue crews were checking on a green sedan in a wooded area off Carderock Springs Drive, but later said the driver of that vehicle tried to go through the water and got stuck.  The driver escaped without injury.

Officials are also concerned about flooding further downstream.  The impact of all of the water rushing down River Road has not been assessed.  Two sinkholes, however, have been reported along River Road, and there is a lot of erosion on the sides of the road due to the tremendous amount of water that ran off the pavement.

There have been several major water main breaks this year in the wealthy suburb of Montgomery County. In June, a rupture closed more than 800 restaurants and left tens of thousands of people scrambling for clean drinking water.

The Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission has warned its system is aging, overtaxed and underfunded. It serves 1.8 million suburban Maryland customers and has had an increasing number of water main breaks, including 1,357 between January and November this year. Last year, it had a record 2,129 breaks or leaks.

"We're plagued by old pipes," said John White, a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesman. "Throughout the nation, aging infrastructure is a problem."

"In the coming hours and days, we will have to make emergency repairs to the pipe and the affected roadways at exorbitant expense," said Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Floreen (D—At large), the chair of the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee. "I have called on the Council president to schedule a joint meeting of the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils to find solutions to this recurring, and increasingly dangerous, series of water main breaks. Currently, we are on a more than 100-year cycle to replace outdated pipes. Obviously, this timeline is way too long and must be changed."

It can cost four times as much to make an emergency replacement as it does to make planned inspections and replacements.

Floreen urged federal and local governments work together to improve infrastructure and suggested any stimulus package funds should be used on the county's infrastructure.

Impact on Area

Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services advises residents that water quality in the county has not been affected by the water main break, even if residents are experiencing low water pressure. HHS has set up a hotline at 240-777-4200 to address any health issues resulting from the water main break.

All Montgomery County Public Schools will close 2 1/2 hours early Tuesday. Bus transportation will be provided for all students who normally ride the bus.

All MCPS athletic activities for Tuesday are canceled. 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.

Community use activities at county schools will be held as scheduled except at the following schools with low water pressure or no water:

  • Bethesda Elementary School
  • Carderock Springs Elementary School
  • Chevy Chase Elementary School
  • Glenhaven Elementary School
  • Potomac Elementary School
  • Somerset Elementary School
  • Wood Acres Elementary School
  • Wyngate Elementary School
  • Thomas Pyle Middle School
  • Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
  • Churchill High School
  • Walt Whitman High School
  • Walter Johnson High School

The YMCA Bethesda-Chevy Chase branch is closed Tuesday due to no water.  The YMCA Ayrlawn Program Center is also closed and is asking that parents pick up their children by 12:30 p.m.

A Suburban Hospital spokeswoman said the water main break has left the hospital with no water pressure. Two tankers of water are on their way for boilers.  Elective surgeries have been canceled.  Employees are using porta-potties.

The hospital also received three victims of the incident, all of them are in good condition.

Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring was affected by the water main break and experienced a loss in water pressure. As a result, the hospital cut off the water supply to several of its upper floors allowing pressure to normalize on lower floors. At this time the hospital is continuing with all scheduled surgeries, dialysis and normal operation.

Some National Institutes of Health campus facilities have no water.  NIH encouraged employees to limit water consumption as the Office of Research Facilities staff work on alternative measures to increase water pressure until the water main is repaired. Non-essential employees and contractors at the main campus and all Bethesda and Rockville area facilities were approved for early dismissal.

The National Naval Medical Center has experienced a decrease in water pressure. Pressure was cut in half for much of the day and even dropped to 18 pounds per gallon, which meant toilets would not flush and water would only drip out of faucets. Some administrative offices completely lost water. Normal pressure is 65 pounds per gallon.

Patient care was not compormised, medical center officials said. The operating rooms have pumps to handle such situations.

All food services at Westfield Mall were shut down as required by Health and Human Services.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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