A massive water main break last night caused the intersection of 20th and Bainbridge streets to collapse, opening a giant sinkhole and flooding the streets. The break and successive attempts to repair it also disrupted other utilities, damaging a nearby gas main and electrical conduit.
According to the Philadelphia Water Department, the break was on a 48-inch transmission main that supplies water to large sections of South Philadelphia and Center City, from JFK Boulevard south to Oregon Avenue. They said the main, which had to be turned off by cranking multiple valves by hand, was shut down around 1:30 a.m.
But it was not in time to stop thousands of gallons of water from pouring into the street – and leaking into nearby resident’s and businesses’ basements – pooling up to five feet deep in some areas.
Owner of Ten Stone Restaurant and Bar at 20th and South streets Marvin Pixley said his employees first called him between 8:30 and 9 p.m. to report that steam was blasting from the sewer grates.
Jets of water then began to shoot from the
asphalt. “They looked like cars bubbling up from the
ground, that’s how big they were,” said architect Chris Scalone, who
built and now rents out a house on the corner of the collapse.
“They were at least three or four feet high in at least four
He said that he and his renters rushed through knee-deep water to get everything they could out of the house’s basement and onto high ground. “We came back this morning and there was about three feet of water down there,” he said. “Everything that was still down there is trash, it’s just mud. The insulation, the carpet – it’s all destroyed.”
Scalone is currently putting at least one of his tenants up at his home while he figures out how to proceed. Though PWD and Streets Department cleanup crews have pumped the majority of the water from area properties, residents are only allowed inside to assess the extent of damages.
“We have a lot of lost revenue, a lot of lost beer, which was stored in the basement, and the heating system is destroyed,” Pixley said. “We shut down at 9 last night and will be lucky if we can open at 9 tomorrow night.” He conservatively estimated the cost to his business to be $10,000.
Scalone said that he was told the water department will compensate property owners after the owners survey their buildings and photograph damages, but both he and Pixley doubted the process would be done in a timely fashion.
“I built the building, so I know what we have to do to put it back together,” Scalone said. “But it’s not even the putting it back together – the hardest part is getting rid of the debris and mud. It has to be done quickly or mold becomes an issue.”
Pixley echoed the concern about timeliness. “Supposedly, they’re going to replace my boilers,” he said. “But I want to be up and running by tomorrow, so if they haven’t replaced them by then, then I’ll have to buy them myself.”
Mayor Michael Nutter explained at a late afternoon press conference why repairing water main break will be complicated. “PECO will complete their work tomorrow,” he said. “Until this work is completed, other agencies cannot resume work in that large – we call it a sinkhole, but basically the street blew up. There is still electrical energy in that hole so we cannot have other agencies, other departments – we can’t have the water department working in the hole while there’s still an energized sinkhole.”
Water service has since been restored to the area, though 28 homes are still without gas service due to the rupture of a small main caused by falling concrete from the crumbled street. The Department of Licenses and Inspections found no structural damage and residents were able to return this afternoon to nearly all of the properties affected, which Water Commissioner Howard Neukrig estimated to be between 60 and 70, though he said the number may rise to as upwards of 100 as claims adjusters go door-to-door assessing the situation.
The only residences not safe for re-occupation are the four most adjacent to the gaping hole, one of which belongs to Scalone.
According to the water department, PWD and Streets Department workers will be on site for “several days” with front-end loaders, dump trucks and street sweepers to repair the pipe and clean the storm drains and streets.
But Scalone put the clean-up length at closer to two months. “It’s a headache,” he said. “And it’s going to take a long time.”
Nutter said the cause of the break is unknown, but likely has to do with both the age of the infrastructure and seasonal changes in temperature, which cause shifting in the pipes. “We know that one of the mains, at least, is particularly old and the other one may have a little age to it, as well.”
He also used the main break as an opportunity to call for more infrastructure investment, a statement he’s made in the past. “This is actually a little bit of a larger story,” he said, emphasizing the need for more financial resources through grants or rate hikes. “When we talk about infrastructure, the seen and the unseen, sometimes the unseen creates some pretty significant problems and then all of the sudden we do see it, but we see it in a way that we don’t want to experience.”
All this was little comfort to Scalone. “I heard the mayor was going to come by,” he said. “But he’s not going to clean my basement.”