Update: Chicago Water Main Leak Creates Comuter Chaos

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Commute a washout February 8, 2000


More than 200,000 CTA commuters face major headaches today after a water main break in the South Loop forced train reroutings and tests of L foundations for structural damage.

Anyone who uses the L will be affected, said CTA President Frank Kruesi.

"It's going to affect the level and quality of service throughout the entire elevated structure no matter where you are on the line," Kruesi warned. "So I want to make sure everybody has no illusions--this is going to be a disruption [that] will slow down our service."

Kruesi said during a news conference that he didn't want to characterize the mishap as the biggest downtown commuting nightmare since the Loop Flood of 1992, but he clearly was trying to prepare people for snafus and confusion today.

"For the next couple of days, at least, it's going to be a long commute, so people need to plan for that, and that's going to be both for the morning and afternoon," Kruesi added.

Pedestrians and motor traffic also will be rerouted because of street closings to repair the main at Quincy and Wells. Engineers are checking L foundations at Quincy and Wells--where the break occurred about 8 a.m. Monday--to ensure water damage hasn't weakened the structure. That station will be shut for at least two days "at a minimum," Kruesi said.

The domino effect of rerouting means other L riders will have delays. "It still affects you because we can only put so many trains on the elevated structure," Kruesi said.

The foundations are set 8 feet deep. But the stop was built in 1896, and "we're not going to run any train along this area of the track until we're absolutely certain that it continues to be safe," Kruesi said.

Preliminary tests turned up no problems, Kruesi said.

The water main break sent forth a geyser that created a 20-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep sinkhole at Quincy and Wells. The hole swallowed a car being towed away and almost snared the tow truck.

"It was like watching a movie--the street came up and water just gushed up like a volcano or an earthquake," said Erwin Glass, manager of the Allright Parking garage at Wells and Adams. "They were towing the car and the street collapsed and the back of the tow truck went in."

Because of the damage, the culprit is believed to be a large, 36-inch main.

Within an hour of the break, Wells was curb-deep in water between Adams and Jackson and city workers started using sandbags to protect buildings. Wells was blocked off to pedestrian and motor traffic on both sides of the street. Streets expected to be closed to traffic Tuesday include Quincy from La Salle to Franklin and Wells from Monroe to Jackson.

Pedestrians had to go blocks out of their way to avoid the water.

"Traffic was horrific," said Paul Kubina, 32, of La Grange Park, a computer information systems specialist at TIS Worldwide. "I parked my car in Greektown because I couldn't get in."

"It looked like a storming river," said Steve Elowson, 32, of Chicago, an employee at ABD Group. "It makes you wonder about the infrastructure."

City Water Commissioner Richard Rice speculated the break could have been triggered by cold weather, construction digging or ground shifts. He refused to speculate on whether a crumbling infrastructure was to blame.

City workers shut off the main to stop the water. They must dig down five to six feet to get to the main. Once repaired, the street must be refilled and repaved.

"It could be a couple of days" before it is reopened, Rice said.

Underground congestion also complicates street repairs. "There's an electric vault on top of the main, there's a duct run [which holds cables], we have to move some ComEd wires and abandoned streetcar tracks and there is a gas main" in the vicinity, said Cindy Lynch, Water Department spokeswoman.

Buildings in the immediate area were without water for about 90 minutes, Rice said. Water pressure was temporarily affected at 208 S. Wells.

Some workers in sub-basement cash areas of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago were evacuated for two hours because of trickles of water. Five inches of water flooded a garage, and vehicle traffic was temporarily suspended. The Fed fought the water with sandbags, and it drained out. Armored cars had to change their Fed access routes because of street shutdowns. Petite Sophisticate at Wells and Adams did a brisk business in trouser socks as women replaced tights dampened by attempts to cross the west street.

"I looked out the window and I said `Oh, my God'--it was just water rushing toward us," said Mary Banks, store manager. "I think the only thing that saved us was the water went through the [street] grates."

"My feet are wet," said Cheryle Stone, 30, of Broadview, a paralegal on the eighth floor of the building who was shopping for new socks.

Contributing: Jessica Madore Fitch ***



-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 08, 2000

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