NBC10.com - George Spencer
A big cleanup is underway after a massive water main break in Frankford sent 20 million gallons of water rushing into the streets. NBC10's George Spencer finds out how often the City of Philadelphia inspects water lines like the one that ruptured.
Water gushed from a massive water main break that left thousands of Philadelphia residents, businesses and dozens of schools for miles around without water the day before Christmas Eve.
In all, officials say the city lost 20 to 23 million gallons of water. That's the equivalent of 30 to 34 Olympic -size swimming pools.
The 48-inch line broke just before 9 a.m. Through their computer monitoring system, the Philadelphia Water Department knew almost immediately that they had a big problem on their hands.
"We knew there was 150 million gallons of a water a day, leaving our system," said Howard Neukrug, Water Commissioner.
All that water and the force behind it gushed out of the street at the intersection of Torresdale and Frankford Avenues in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, quickly flooding the area right in front of the Nana's Day Care, where the water rose between three and five feet, according to the fire department.
"The teachers did an excellent job of exercising their evacuation plan," said Derrick Sawyer, deputy fire commissioner. "Because they followed their procedures, we didn't have to make any dramatic rescues." But rescue crews did prepare for worst-case scenario moments by launching rafts into a nearby creek in case people got swept away by the fast-rising water.
Nearly three hours after the pipe burst, 20 feet below ground, water department workers were able to pinpoint the break. By the late afternoon they were able to repair the main, which was built in 1907 and connects to an even bigger pipe -- a 60-inch main, which was built in 1906.
"We'll be looking at whether age is a factor," said Neukrug. "Typically though, even with pipes that are 100 years old, we find they are in very good condition."
The pipe that burst feeds smaller, 12-inch lines that send water into homes and businesses for about a three-mile radius, according to Neukrug. For that reason, thousands of people were affected. Their water was either out or the pressure was too low for basic functions like flushing a commode. Problems like that forced 38 local schools to close early. Many businesses did the same.
By early afternoon, crews had dug up pieces of asphalt as heavy machinery cleaned debris left by the large amount of water and mud. Water was restored for the affected customers, according to officials. Crews will be on site for several days to clean up the area. They also say full repairs could take months.
"We’re going to be looking at cleaning up the sites, then once we get the site cleaned up we’ll have our inspectors come out and our claims adjusters come out and work with the businesses that are in the area to make sure everything is fine. We will then spend a little bit of time excavating this pipe and finding what the fault was and making the repairs," Neukrug said.
Within minutes, thousands lost water service around the city. The break affected water customers in eight different zip codes (19121, 19122, 19123, 19124, 19130, 19134, 19137, 19140). Water Department spokesman John DiGiulio said reverse 911 calls would be made to alert customers of the outage.
Philadelphia firefighters relocated six people and children from nearby businesses. They had all returned home, according to Mayor Michael Nutter who applauded the efforts of rescue workers during an early afternoon news conference.
"Special shout-out to the water and fire departments for their immediate response, for making sure citizens were first safe and secure," Nutter said.
@VinceLattanzio Given the information we have at this time, it is not necessary to boil your water. We will provide updates of any changes.
— Philadelphia Water (@PhillyH2O) Dec. 23, 2013
NBC10 received calls and tweets from people in various neighborhoods including Mayfair, Juniata Park and Northeast Philadelphia that they lost water service. They weren't alone.
"16th and Green in the Spring Garden neighborhood is shut off too," tweeted Kimberly Stanislaw.
The outage hit businesses along busy Fairmount Avenue in the city's Fairmount neighborhood.
"It's kind of spotty," said Stephanie Mertz, owner of RyBread at 23rd and Fairmount. That's more than 5 miles away from where the break occurred.
RyBread closed around 10:30 because Mertz said they didn't have any water to run their coffee machines or dishwashers. She said that other businesses in the neighborhood also reported a lack of water pressure.
She said she hoped to open Tuesday considering it is supposed to be their last day of business before the New Year.
Lynda Gresham who lives along Foulkrod Street near Frankford High said she woke up to find "there was no water"
"In the kitchen, there’s brown water spilling out. In my bathroom, there’s completely no water. Luckily for me, I order my water. I will put it in a bucket and wash up."
Schools, in session for the last day before Christmas break, were hit hard. More than three dozen schools including 28 elementary schools, 11 high schools, three middle schools and an early childhood center sent home students at 11:30 a.m. due to a lack of water service.
Teachers at Juniata Park Academy -- more than one mile from the break -- said there were no flushing toilets at the school, which houses around 1,000 kids -- many of whom didn't go to school Monday in any case.
"The toilets aren't flushing and essentially have become port-a-potties -- really sanitary," sarcastically said a teacher in the school that asked not to be identified.
Juniata Park joined other schools including Barton, Spruance and Thurgood Marshall elementary schools; Ben Franklin and Masterman high schools; and Clemente and Meehan middle schools in closing.
The Community College of Philadelphia on Spring Garden Street also closed due to the water service issues.
During the clean-up traffic was diverted around the scene and SEPTA detoured bus routes 5 and 56.
The Columbia North YMCA at 1400 N Broad Street -- nearly 5 miles from the scene of the break -- was also forced to close "for the remainder of the day" after water shut off.
St. Christopher's Hospital for Children spokeswoman Ilena Ditoro said that due to the break, "St. Chris has implemented a number of protective measures to ensure the ongoing safety and comfort of our patients."
The hospital closed its medical offices and outpatient center and rescheduled all surgeries except emergency surgeries. "The hospital and E.R. will remain open. All updates are on Facebook and Twitter," Ditoro said.
Philadelphia has more than 3,000 miles of water mains buried under city streets -- the average age of a main is 86 years old, according to the water department. The average main is expected to function properly for 100 to 120 years under "favorable conditions."