Overlea still in cold after main breaks

Water-damage repairs, lack of heat are concerns

October 26, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

After a second chilly October night in her unheated Overlea home, Irene Zmijewski saw hope in the form of a utility crew when it arrived yesterday morning. A worker descended into her basement, struck a wooden match and lit the pilot light on her furnace -- a procedure that will be repeated in 1,600 homes and businesses this week.

But Zmijewski's 52-year-old furnace just wouldn't work. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. worker told the woman, who was wearing socks inside her gray fleece slippers, that she would probably need to replace her furnace before gas could safely be restored to it. Then he blew out the pilot light and left.

"It's old, I know," she said, dabbing her cold nose with a tissue. "But it probably would have kept on going if it wasn't for this."

Zmijewski and other residents throughout the northeast Baltimore County neighborhood were affected by the unusual combination of water and gas main breaks Saturday. Crews were still flushing water from the gas pipes yesterday, and, as each section was completed, were going door to door to rekindle furnaces and gas-fueled appliances.

It could be days before everyone can flip on their heat, said Linda Foy, a spokeswoman for BGE. By yesterday evening, gas had been restored to about a quarter of those affected, she said.

A 6-inch water main and a 6-inch gas main buried together at Cardwell Avenue and Belair Road burst Saturday afternoon, and water got into the gas system, flowing through the broken 6-inch main and a 10-inch main connected to it, Foy said.

Officials for BGE and Baltimore City's Department of Public Works -- which operates the county's water mains -- said they were investigating the cause of the breaks yesterday. BGE officials went a step further. "That water main damaged our gas main," Foy said.

Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the city's public works department, compared the breaks to the "chicken and the egg" story. "Which came first? We don't know that yet."

The cause will become important as some residents file insurance claims. Water flooded some basements and caused two furnace fires in the 4200 block of Cardwell Ave. The fires, which caused minimal damage and no injuries, were a result of high water pressure bursting low-pressure gas pipes inside the furnaces, Foy said.

Dozens of other residents were left with wet appliances when water -- instead of gas -- streamed out of pilot lights.

Bob Potter on Cardwell checked his neighbor's property when it became clear something was wrong Saturday afternoon and found water bubbling out of all four burners atop the stove.

"It looked like something you'd see in a Three Stooges movie," he said. "You know, when they hook up the appliances all wrong."

Water also flowed from Potter's gas-fueled clothes drier into his basement, he said, forcing a repair that will cost him $400.

Residents on Cardwell were comparing bills yesterday, and they said the cost of the breaks was adding up. And insurance companies were telling customers they weren't sure whether a homeowner's policy would cover such a claim, Potter and other residents said.

A community meeting will probably be scheduled, said Damian O'Doherty, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. The city and BGE told Smith they would send representatives to that meeting to answer questions, O'Doherty said.

Residents had their water back by Saturday night, Kocher said. According to the county schools Web site last night, Elmwood Elementary School will be closed today.

Older residents in the area bundled up to attend yesterday's bingo luncheon at Overlea Senior Center on Fullerton Avenue, where three space heaters hummed all day.

"I told them to wear layers," said Julie Lynn, senior center supervisor. Utility workers arrived there about 4:30 p.m. to relight the pilot lights.

Schooners Restaurant in the 7700 block of Belair Road has been limited to serving only drinks and cold sandwiches since its deep fryer and stove flooded Saturday, general manager Rik Quarengesser said. He said it's not clear whether the equipment was ruined.

"We're worried," he said. "We haven't been able to serve our customers in three days."

More than 100 utility workers, including crews from Philadelphia and Washington, and a fleet of BGE vehicles seemed to take over the affected neighborhood, near the Beltway and Belair Road.

As workers moved in a southeast direction, first draining the pipes and then restoring gas, Foy said, they were finding higher levels of water because of the area's downhill terrain.

Other problems cropped up along the way.

On Cardwell Avenue, a crew found that the end of the gas main had cracked -- possibly from the pressure of the water -- and workers had to saw out the damaged section.

Residents were finding complications, too. Kitty Peak on Henry Avenue had her kitchen painted this weekend, but her yellow and white paint wouldn't dry with the temperature so low. She and her husband lost power for a week after Tropical Storm Isabel last year and didn't relish the idea of too many more days without heat.

"Seems like there's a little cloud over our heads," she said.

Sun staff writer Kevin T. McVey contributed to this article.

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