River Road repairs could take weeks after water main break
Pipe could be fixed in several days; River Road closed between Bradley and Seven Locks
Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette
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This story was updated on Dec. 24 at 1:02 p.m.
Repairs to the 66-inch water main at River Road in Bethesda could take several days to complete, after a massive break in the main yesterday trapped 15 motorists and passengers in its wake.
Repair crews and an emergency contractor were working to repair the main, said Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesman Mike McGill. Crews were working to remove several large trees from the area and other debris. Water service should remain normal during the repairs.
Fixing River Road between Bradley Boulevard and Seven Locks Road could take longer, according to WSSC spokesman John White. The road is currently closed between Bradley and Seven Locks.
"The repairs to the road, I don't have any estimate on that. It could take weeks," White said. "I don't have a timetable on that."
Water service was restored to all customers in Montgomery County yesterday afternoon, although the water may be discolored and taste differently than usual. A statement from the WSSC said while the discolored water is safe to drink, it should not be used in baby formula and should not be used to do laundry.
The break of the 66-inch main occurred around 7:55 a.m. Tuesday near the intersection of River Road and Fenway Road in Bethesda, according to White. At least a dozen motorists were rescued from the rushing water, said Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Spokesman Pete Piringer. Initially between 12 and 15 people were trapped in their cars, although some were able to escape by themselves, according to Piringer.
The water main break caused widespread water outages that affected operations at area schools and hospitals. About 100 customers lost water completely, McGill said, but water pressure was affected as far east as Silver Spring.
Public schools closed two and a half hours early on Tuesday, as about 20 schools in the downcounty either lost water or heat because of the outage's effects on boilers, said Kate Harrison, Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman.
McGill could not confirm that frigid temperatures contributed to the break, though he said that mains commonly break this time of year.
The pipe was last inspected in 1998, WSSC spokesman Jim Neustadt said, and was scheduled for its next inspection in 2010 or 2011. At that time, he said, the pipe would have been retrofitted to include a fiber optic monitoring system, which would alert WSSC of any cracks or possible failures. The broken main runs from the WSSC water filtration plant in Potomac to the Mormon Temple in Kensington.
McGill said he would estimate the amount of water in the "millions of gallons."
Rescue workers who used boats to pull stranded drivers out of Tuesday morning's flood on River Road said they had never experienced such a treacherous rescue.
Lt. Patrick Mitchell, of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, saved two passengers stranded in their vehicles near the intersection of River Road and Fenway Drive.
Mitchell said the squad regularly trains on the Potomac River, but he had never had a similar rescue in his 32 years of service.
"This is what we're here for, we train all the time for this," said Mitchell, a member of the county's water rescue team. "…I was very happy to see those two ladies out of harm's way."
Emergency helicopters and swift boats were on the scene rescuing stranded motorists from the four feet of water. Three people were rescued via a hoist from a Maryland State Police helicopter, according to Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.
Sylvia Saldana, 56, of Springfield, Va., was driving to work on River Road when her Subaru Impreza was suddenly surrounded by water. Unsure what to do, she called her husband, prayed, then waited.
"I was very nervous and scared, and I was praying for everybody, not just myself," she said after the incident, while sipping hot chocolate at the Cabin John Fire Station. "But the fire department opened my door helped me out."
While driving her daughter to tennis lessons at Congressional Country Club at about 7:55 a.m. Tuesday, Washington D.C. resident Natalie Smith saw a torrent of water rushing down River Road, throwing tree branches, rocks and chunks of concrete toward her Mercedes SUV.
Smith immediately recognized the danger in proceeding up the hill, and began to turn the car around in the water.
"I must've done a 10-point turn to get back in the other direction," she said. "When we were sideways the water was so strong I thought the car was going to flip."
Capt. Frank Doyle, also of the county's water rescue team, said under the right circumstances a car can be flipped over by only one foot of rushing water. Officials estimated the spewing water to be four feet deep at some points.
Suburban and Holy Cross hospitals were affected by the water outages. At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Suburban Hospital spokeswoman Margaret Fitz William said the hospital had canceled surgeries and were not accepting any new trauma cases, but just after 3 p.m., Ronna Borenstein-Levy, another hospital spokeswoman said normal water pressure had returned. She said the only procedures delayed by the water main break were elective procedures, and that they would be rescheduled for later in the week. The hospital planned to resume all normal operations.
"Our emergency room is now open to ambulances," Borenstein-Levy said.
Staff writers Erin Donaghue, Andrew Ujifusa, Fred Lewis and Margie Hyslop contributed to this article.