- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A massive water-main break sent a four-foot wall of water down one of suburban Washington’s busy commuter routes Tuesday morning, forcing trapped motorists to be plucked from their cars by rescue boats and helicopters and providing political leaders with a dramatic new argument for upgrading the region’s aging infrastructure.

Though shaken, none of the dozen or so victims trapped in their vehicles on River Road, in Bethesda, suffered serious injuries. But the signs of devastation - from mud-covered cars to giant sinkholes - left officials scrambling to solve short-term inconveniences such as low water pressure and re-routing commuter traffic for the holidays.

Related article: Crews start repairs on broken water main in Bethesda

Political leaders also immediately sought to make the episode - disseminated on national television - a rallying cry for securing money in President-elect Barack Obama’s expected job creation and economic recovery program to upgrade the Mid-Atlantic region’s badly outdated infrastructure.

“We have long known we are in a dangerous situation,” Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner, Bethesda Democrat, said. “We know that without the federal government’s help there are future incidents similar to today´s that are waiting to happen.”

Mr. Berliner, also a member of the council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee, said the incident “underscores the urgent need for the federal government to include projects like fixing the infrastructure in neighborhoods such as this in the federal stimulus package.”

Mr. Obama has called upon state and local leaders to submit public works projects and other ideas for federal funding.

The break in the 66-inch water main erupted at about 7:55 a.m., sending as much as 150,000 gallons a minute onto River Road, near Seven Locks Road.

The water hit the vehicles with so much force that at least one vehicle was overturned and another shoved into a wooded area. A mound of rubble stood at the top of River Road where the water had broken through the ground, near Fenway Road.

“We’re OK,” said Gaithersburg resident Hebert Derienzo, who along with fiancee Maria Delgado was rescued from his car in temperatures in the mid-teens. “That’s the best gift.”

Mr. Derienzo said he lost some Christmas gifts but “those people will get IOUs.”

Pete Piringer, a county fire department spokesman, said: “Drivers were confronted with a 4-foot wall of water.”

Two women were rescued from their cars by boat and brought to shore while three others were picked up by baskets from state police helicopters. One rescuer, Lt. Patrick Mitchell, had to be picked up by a helicopter after his boat became filled with water after rescuing the two women.

“I can’t see anything,” a woman screamed to a 911 operator, according to a tape released by authorities. “I need help!”

“Stay calm, ma’am,” the operator responded. “We’re coming.”

The water stranded as many as 16 motorists. Five people were treated at nearby Suburban Hospital for hypothermia. The rescue operation concluded at about 9:30 a.m.

The rescues were made more difficult by the “hilly, muddy, icy environment,” said Frank Boyle of the county’s search-and-rescue Team.

“The volume of water and the speed of the water made the cars keep moving,” he said. “I never expected to see something like this on River Road.”

Pepco cut power to the area after the torrent of water toppled a tree onto a power line. About 54 residents were still without power as of Tuesday night.

More than 100 county residents experienced low or no water pressure. The low pressure also forced county officials to close public schools two hours early. Suburban Hospital, the county’s only hospital with a designated trauma facility, was forced to close it, stop elective surgeries and bring in water tankers until pressure was restored. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda also reported decreased water pressure.

River Road will be closed for at least several days between Seven Locks Road and Bradley Boulevard, which will likely result in backups along alternative routes because it is a major north-south thoroughfare for commuters into the District.

By mid-morning emergency crews turned to searching the area for vehicles and motorists they might have missed in their rescue efforts.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said crews had difficulty shutting off the water main because the valves were underwater. Agency officials did not know what caused the break, but temperatures in the mid-teens could have been a factor. The water main was turned off by about 2 p.m.

The road closure also will affect several bus routes, said county spokeswoman, Donna Bigler.

The water service in the county was restored by 2:30 p.m. Sanitary commission officials said the water is safe to drink, despite some reports of discoloration.

The rescue operation included emergency crews from the state police and Fairfax County.

Gov. Martin O’Malley and County Executive Isiah Leggett said they would join with Department of Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and Maryland State Highway officials to tour the damage from the water main break Wednesday morning.

County Council member Nancy Floreen, at-large Democrat, said she had called on the County Council president to schedule a meeting with the Prince George’s County Council to find solutions to the recurring series of water main breaks.

“This morning’s water main break on River Road in Bethesda put lives in jeopardy, caused the closure of the county’s only hospital with a designated trauma facility, closed schools and caused extreme inconvenience to commuters, residents, businesses and holiday travelers,” Miss Floreen said.

“This severe break is a prime example of the desperate need for increased infrastructure funding. Any federal funds that come available through President Obama’s stimulus package must be used to replace and maintain our county’s own deteriorating infrastructure.”

Over the past year, the County Council has attempted to work with sanitation commission officials on a plan to address aging water mains that have been breaking at an increasing rate. This fall, the Montgomery and Prince George’s councils approved the commission’s use of $1.6 million in the agency’s fund to inspect large mains similar to the one that broke Tuesday to find problems before breaks occur.

The commission serves more than 1.8 million residents in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. It operates and maintains seven water and wastewater plants, 5,500 miles of fresh water pipeline and more than 5,300 miles of sewer pipeline.

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