Image: Helicopter used in rescue
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
A helicopter rescue crew hovers over the flooded River Road in Bethesda, Md., on Tuesday.
updated 12/23/2008 6:08:54 PM ET 2008-12-23T23:08:54

A massive, aging water main ruptured Tuesday and transformed a suburban Washington road into a raging river, trapping nine motorists who had to be rescued from the frigid deluge by emergency workers.

Two people in a minivan climbed into a basket lowered by a helicopter. As floodwaters raged past, water sprayed on a rescuer reaching out to save them. Crews also used a boat to rescue motorists from the 4-feet deep water.

Montgomery County fire officials said five people were checked for hypothermia. The temperatures outside were in the 20s.

“The water tumbled over the car like a wave,” said Silvia Saldana, of Springfield, Va., who was traveling to work when she became trapped. “I started to pray.”

She also called her husband three times while she was stuck in the car for about 30 minutes before help arrived.

Fire spokesman Pete Piringer said crews had trouble getting to people because of the swift-moving water. Officials said 150,000 gallons of water per minute were gushing out at one point, spilling debris onto the road.

Schools, hospital impacted
Piringer said some trees fell onto a power line and knocked down a utility pole. Schools in the county closed early because of widespread water outages, and a hospital where three people rescued were treated and released diverted ambulances and closed its trauma division because of lost water pressure.

A man who lives about 50 feet from the street described the immediate, unexpected flood after the pipe, about 5½ feet in diameter, ruptured.

“I thought it might be a minor leak, then suddenly I stepped outside and, ’My God!”’ said Raj Bhansaly. “It looked literally like the Potomac River.”

From his house, Bhansaly said he saw two cars tied to rescue vehicles with ropes.

The water main broke about 8 a.m. on River Road near the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, authorities said.

Firefighter Anthony Bell was on a fire truck with two others when he saw brown water on the road and realized something wasn’t right.

“We were wondering if we could make the rescue,” he said. Bell and the other firefighters raced through the roaring water and pulled four people from three cars.

“I’ve been here 20 years,” he said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Cause still not clear
John White, a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesman, said it was not yet clear what caused the break.

Because of the gushing water’s intensity, fire officials did not allow utility workers to immediately shut down valves where the break occurred, White said. But crews were able to shut down two valves farther down the pipeline, slowing the flow. Authorities said the water flowed into a nearby creek.

Water pressure was being restored late Tuesday to hundreds of customers, including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, which are located in the area.

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.

White said the pipe that broke Tuesday was installed in 1964.

The American Water Works Association, a Denver-based nonprofit that works to improve water quality, said billions of dollars are needed to replace aging pipes nationwide.

Spokesman Greg Kail said old pipes continue to be a major factor in water main breaks. Some pipes are 50 to 100 years, he said.

“We are seeing a higher rate of breaks nationwide,” he said. “We expect that rate to increase in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Flood of questions surrounds water main break

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