Crater snarls downtown commute Sinkhole repairs will take at least two weeks, city says

Cause remains unknown

Public works, utility officials avoid assigning blame

November 11, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews and Jacques Kelly | Robert Guy Matthews and Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

The yawning sinkhole that swallowed a busy downtown Baltimore intersection snarled traffic for hours yesterday while the city's Public Works Department and utility company officials sidestepped assigning blame for the cave-in.

As commuters faced the aftereffects of the early Saturday morning street collapse and subsequent gas explosion for the first time, rerouted traffic around the Franklin Street corridor caused backups all day. It is expected to inconvenience commuters for at least two weeks, when city officials say the crater will be repaired.

"Hi, honey, follow the leader," yelled traffic control officer Janet Herpel as she waved confused motorists away from the site at Franklin Street and Park Avenue.

"I just wish that people would take another route, not this one," she said.

In the first 48 hours after the cave-in, the city spent $100,000 -- about $2,000 an hour -- digging for clues to what sparked a spectacular explosion that shattered windows, downed light poles and closed a nearby homeless shelter. When the dust had settled, a 30-foot-deep hole remained -- along with a lot of questions.

Public works chief George G. Balog said late yesterday that he and officials of Trigen Energy Baltimore, the company that runs steam lines under the intersection, worked out a deal in which both sides would not blame the other for the street collapse until an investigation is completed.

"I did discuss the issue with Trigen, and we agreed we would work together cooperatively to repair all the utilities and restore the road," Balog said. "We agreed we would not discuss liability issues until all the facts come in."

Late yesterday, public works crews found what they think is a 3-foot-wide hole in a huge sewer line that runs deep beneath the corner of Park Avenue and Franklin Street.

Balog said he doesn't know if the hole in the sewer line was there before or after the explosion.

If it was there before, the hole could have undermined gas, water and steam pipes and caused the road to sag, some utility officials suggest. But if the hole was created after the explosion, the sewer line would be eliminated as the cause, according to Balog.

"Will we have an answer? I'm not sure," Balog said.

Trigen officials, however, insisted earlier that the company was not at fault for the explosion.

"I am virtually certain it was not our problem," said James J. Abromitis, Trigen's president.

But he added that he could not say what caused the sequence of events that led to the street cave-in and gas ignition.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials also said yesterday that the company was not to blame for the incident, in which a gas line running under the street ignited and shot out flames for five hours over the street.

"We were the victim of this occurrence," said BGE spokesman Art Slusark. "Our equipment fell into the hole we did not create. We are looking at the scenario, where the wires were that were severed and caused the spark."

But Balog was skeptical that the city-owned water line was the sole culprit.

"Would a 10-inch water main cause all that damage?" he said.

He said that the collapse could have been just as easily caused by a broken gas, water or steam line running underneath the street.

"To say that any one of these things caused [the damage], I don't know," Balog said.

The sinkhole at Park Avenue and Franklin Street is the second major utility incident this year. In May, a 5-foot water main burst in the middle of Homewood Avenue, swept houses from their foundations and displaced families.

But Balog said the two incidents are unrelated and are not an indication of major problems with the city's infrastructure.

A contractor has been hired to clean the sewer line at the sinkhole and another has been hired to dredge the area and fix the conduit system that was damaged in the explosion.

Trigen officials, who were first on the scene, said a worker heard an alarm go off at 3: 50 a.m. Saturday from a steam monitoring station in South Baltimore. The alarm indicated abnormally low steam pressure in the geographic area of the accident.

Workers went by truck to that part of the Mount Vernon neighborhood and found the standing water and sinkhole at Park Avenue and Franklin Street. "It was like a lake with mist on the top," said Abromitis.

He said his crew shut the steam valves off at 5: 34 a.m. An hour later, the pool of standing water had drained out, exposing a deep cavity in the street.

"I looked inside the hole and saw a broken water pipe and our steam pipe intact on the bottom," said Abromitis.

Yesterday at dusk, the bright work lights clamped to the windows of the central Enoch Pratt Free Library flashed on to the chugging sound of dozens of portable generators.

The Pratt Library opened yesterday for the first time since the street collapse. Officials of the Metropolitan YWCA said it will remain closed for the rest of the week. The State Library for the Blind and Handicapped was shut yesterday. Regular religious services continued at the Basilica of the Assumption.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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