The Day I Blew Out a 24inch Water Main


29 March 2007






At the end of my first year of college, my mother arranged for me to have a summer job with the Winchester, Virginia Water Department. Now in 1964, the entire Water Department of Winchester consisted of a manager, 2 crews of 2 men and one very old senior black man that could not do much of anything anymore but absolutely knew where every water cutoff valve was in the entire city. Since the old black man could not drive, any days I shuttled him around in a department truck so he could instruct on of the other crews which valve to close to shut off some segment of city water.


Besides being a driver for the old black man, and he was old, maybe 85 or 90, I also did a variety of other jobs like taking water meters out of service and rebuilding them back at headquarters; mowing the grass around the town’s huge water towers and then in the middle of the summer, I got assigned the job of flushing out the water system of the city.


Now flushing a water line is a not a hard job as all I had to do was to take off one or more caps off the fire hydrant connections and then use a large wrench on a nut on the top of the hydrant to slowly open the large valve at the bottom of the hydrant. As I open the valve, water would begin to rush out the open fire hose connections and I would let the water spill into the street and gutter for 10 minutes or so before I began to slowly close the value. Now one did not have to be too careful opening the hydrant valve but when I closed it, I had to go very slowly and if I could feel any vibration at all, I would have to immediately stop or actual reverse direction. If the valve at the bottom of the hydrant began to vibrate too much as it closed against it seal, it could send vibrations down attached pipes such that they might actually break or spring a leak.


So after learning how to open and close hydrants from my old black companion, who knew where every hydrant was in the city, for the next several weeks, we proceed to open and close 100’s of hydrants, slowly making our way out of the city and towards the water pumping station some 10 miles or more from downtown Winchester.


As it would turn out, on my last day of work for the Water Department, there were only 2 hydrants left to open and close. One hydrant was right on Route 11 and some 2 or 3 miles from the pumping station and although it wanted to vibrate on me, I go it open and closed without a problem.


Then on the very last hydrant, which was actually located on the grounds of the water pumping station. Again, I slowly opened and then closed the valve and did not feel any vibration through the whole operation. Mission accomplished, summer job, complete, headed home.


About 4 miles from the pumping station, the radio came to life: “24inch water main blow out at pumping station!” Oh, no. How could that be? I had feel no vibration at all and although I had been especially warned that morning to be careful around the station where the water pressure was highest, my opening and closing the hydrant there must have caused the main rupture as the timing of the break and me just being there was to close to just be coincidence.


So we headed back to headquarters in Winchester and began to gather equipment that would be needed to repair the pipe. Since I had never seen a 24 inch water main, must less work on repairing one, at first I was rather excited and glad to hear and feel that no one blamed me. Yes I had opening the hydrant there today but when I told them I felt no vibration at all, they believe me but I still felt bad.


By the time we reached the site of the water main break, it was already dark and so large lights rigged to generators had to be brought in and set up. Where the 24 inch main had burst, it had created an 8 foot deep hole in the ground and apparent shot water 100’s of feet into the air before the pumping station shut down pumping the one and only main to the city of Winchester.


Backhoe’s pulling dirt out of the hole where the rupture was until the main was exposed some 8 feet below ground. Then one crew down in the hole to inspect and they found the main had split along the bottom, in line with the pipe and the crack in the cast iron pipe was several inches long.


How to repair this? I had not a clue.


More digging around pipe and expansion of hole until one pipe junction was found. At this junction the defective pipe fitted into another piece of pipe still partially buried.  Then movement to the other end of the pipe, a good 3 or 4 foot beyond the rupture in the pipe.


With the dirt cleaned away from the pipe at both ends, a special saw was brought in and attached to the pipe just beyond where it had split. Then crews of 2 men at a time, worked in the hole with long sticks, moving this giant pipe saw around the pipe, little by little. No motor driven saw here and to make one turn of the saw on the pipe too tremendous human strength and about one turns is all one crew could do before they had to rest and another crew came in to make a turn. So around and around the giant pipe saw went through the night until it appeared that the pipe was close to being cut through and then a crane came and chains were wrapped around the piece to be removed and more sawing and the bad piece of pipe was lifted out of the hole and set aside. It was now about 3am and only half the job had been done.


I was sent to get food for the crews and take my old black companion home as he could not really help and he had already imparted all he knew about making such repairs.


When I returned to the site, a new piece of pipe was being sawed that would fit in the hole and mate with the one end of the main perfecting and on the other end, I learned a special collar would have to be installed over the new pipe and the existing pipe.


So the new pipe was finally lowered into the hole and one end fitted into the fitting on one end of the main and at the other end, it was aligned as perfectly as possible before a huge, multiple nut and bolt collar was placed over it and the other end of the main.


For the next 6 hours, the collar was slowly and gradually tightened and when all seemed to be right, dirt was placed back in the hole around the main and tamped down tight. From what I understand the crews say, we could not test the new pipe repair without dirt covering the pipe as when water pressure was applied, if not covered, the pipe would in all likelihood jump right out of the ground. What if the new pipe leaked? Have to do whole job all over again.


By this time, everyone involved had worked around the clock or been on the job for a complete 24 hours and was dead tired. Moving away from the area where the ruptured main had been, the pumping station was radioed to start the pumps again and we all waited to see what would happen. 5 minutes when by and then 10 and finally a half hour and all looked good, so we loaded up and headed back to headquarters.


It is here, that I first experienced how easy it really was to fall asleep driving as it happened to me twice on the way home. One minute I would be driving and everything seems ok and then next, I would suddenly open my eyes and realize I was in a car, on a road, in traffic and had dozed off! Stopped immediately after the first time this happened to me and tried to shake myself awake before continuing but only a few miles down the road, it happened again. Did eventually make it home and dropped dead into bed, dirty clothes and all.


Never did have a chance to say decent goodbyes to the crews there at the Water Department. Like them all and all hardworking folks who gave the city plenty of effort for the amount of pay they received in return.


And in the end, I know I must have ruptured the pipe and have always felt bad about it but everyone there did not seem to blame me and I let it go at that.


Do wish I could have seen water shooting up out of a 24inch water main break out the field it was located in.


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