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S.L. east bench suffers tough break

Pamela Mullin will spend the second day of a 10-day vacation trying to salvage what is left of her belongings.

Every minute for more than an hour and a half, 6,000 gallons of city water spewed from the hillside above Mullin's home, 1865 S. Wasatch Drive. The water main break sent a wall of water and mud cascading down the hill and into the east-bench house she shares with a friend.Water department officials can't explain why the 17-year-old water main ruptured. The 12-foot metal pipe had about an 8-foot rip in it that was not consistent with what happens to a pipe during a shift in the ground, said Bob Wallin, Salt Lake water distribution systems manager.

Crews replaced the pipe Thursday afternoon. There won't be water running through it again for several days, although no one in the area is without water.

Public works officials will investigate the disaster, but Wallin said he didn't know if they would ever pinpoint a cause.

"Nine times out of 10 we'll never know why it split. We call it an act of God," he said. "I'm afraid this may be one of those times by the looks of it."

Wallin said the destruction "ranked up there among the worst" damage done by water main breaks.

Thursday's rupture was different, said Salt Lake Fire Capt. Devin Villa, because in this case the water line broke above houses, instead of in a street where it could more easily be diverted from homes.

"With it coming down (the mountain) it's like a flash flood," Villa said.

Residents wondered why it took so long for city officials to get the water turned off. Wallin said the delay occurred because one of the pipe's shut-off valves was covered with asphalt.

It took crews a while just to locate the valve, and then they used picks to tear up the asphalt and get to it, Wallin said. Officials aren't sure who paved over the valve, he said.

The water shot from the mountainside near a rock painted with a white "H" in honor of Highland High School. It cascaded down the hillside and into homes. At least 15 homes sustained some kind of water and mud damage, Villa said.

Water from the break turned Wasatch Boulevard into a river that flowed down to 2100 East and Foothill Boulevard, covering the roads and sidewalks.

Neither Mullin nor her roommate, homeowner Kent Frandsen, were home at the time of the disaster. Mullin, a nurse at University Hospital, had just started her vacation and was out shopping. She found out about the trouble after being paged numerous times by friends. Frandsen was also notified by friends.

The roommates, who have lived together for seven years, planned to spend Friday looking over the damages with insurance adjusters and attorneys, Mullin said.

"Right now they are saying the insurance won't cover it because it was external water," Mullin said early Friday. "Luckily, about 75 percent of my stuff is in a storage unit in another part of town."

Mullin was able to scrounge some things from the muddy rubble, including some pictures, a ceramic cat and a drawer full of valuable jewelry.

"They keep saying I shouldn't touch anything until after the insurance people look at it and make a decision, but I'm getting whatever I can grab," she said.

Amazing: That's the way passers-by and neighbors described the waterfall that came shooting out of the hillside just after 11 a.m.

"It was just like a fountain," said B.J. Fullmer, who noticed the muddy water covering Foothill Boulevard first. She was on her way home when she noticed cars either trying to avoid the mucky mess on Foothill by driving into the lanes of oncoming traffic or plowing through it - spraying mud and rocks everywhere.

She stopped to watch the waterfall, which swept mud and rocks down the hillside and into the yards and basements of houses in its path.

What she saw was about a half-dozen people trying to keep the rushing brown water from entering their homes. One woman called for sandbags, while another man tried to push it back with boards.

Donna Harbuck lives across the west side of 2600 East, kitty-corner from the house directly below the water line.

She and her husband ran outside and began digging up their yard in an effort to keep the water from coming in their basement windows. Within minutes, firefighters were in her yard helping.

Two different construction companies working nearby donated the use of their Bobcat front-end loaders. Residents used the mud that had been swept down the mountain to build dams in front of houses.

Residents said the efforts of those people saved their homes. Yards were another story.

Jared Johnson made the 911 call that alerted authorities to the water line break a little after 11 a.m. En route to his grandmother's home, Johnson looked up at the "H" and noticed some movement in the grass.

"It wasn't a geyser yet, but you could see the water just flowing out of the mountain," he said. "It was like someone left the hose on."

After calling for help, Johnson banged on the door of Mullin and Frandsen's home to make sure no one was inside. Then he went across the street to try and help Frank Nelson divert the rushing water from his own home.

"I was just trying to do my part and help out in the community," said Johnson, who stayed on the scene for several hours before going to a job interview. "I wasn't panicked, but I just knew that if there was somebody inside those homes, it could be dangerous for them."