Bill Ralls was smoking a cigarette when he heard a “whoosh,” a sound like the wind, and then looked toward the Massachusetts Mills apartments just in time to see a no-parking sign and a fire hydrant vanish.
“I saw the fire hydrant and the sign just drop into the ground,” Ralls told me tonight. “It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it.”
Ralls, who has lived in the building for about six years, walked toward where the hydrant and sign had been and saw a 2-foot-to-3-foot-wide hole in the ground. Then the ground collapsed even more.
“It started collapsing toward me, so I ran,” said Ralls, who lives on the second-floor, directly above the sinkhole.
After the second time the earth collapsed, the hole was substantially larger, so Ralls yelled for a neighbor to call 911.
Above is what the sinkhole looked like when I arrived. Notice the granite curb still in place. A few seconds after I took this, the ground in front of the guy in the background collapsed.
Needless to say that guy hustled back behind the police tape.
Police Lt. Thomas Siopes was among the first to arrive about 8 p.m. He urgently radioed for dispatchers to send the Fire and Water departments.
“This is a real dangerous situation,” Siopes said. “This is right up against the building.”
Firefighters arrived as the ground around the hole continued to collapse, soon sucking in large, granite curb stones and bricks from a sidewalk and fire lane. A chain fence in front of the building had already fallen in.
Firefighters used a sledge hammer to smash a metal cover over a water-shutoff valve nearby, but were unable to stop the water without a specialized tool.
By then, the hole was about 25 feet across, and Deputy Fire Chief Patrick McCabe ordered his men to move a ladder truck parked nearby. He wasn’t sure how much of the ground in the area had been washed out underneath.
Police put up crime-scene tape to keep residents away from the hole.
I should have been shooting video. Above you can see the splash from when the granite curb finally fell into the hole.
The loud sound of rushing water that filled the area stopped suddenly at 8:40 p.m., when Water Department workers used a long tool on the nearby water-shutoff valve. A round of applause arose from onlookers, most of whom had come out of the building.
McCabe said the entire ordeal had been caused by a break in a water line that is a mere 6 inches in diameter. The line broke between the hydrant and the nearby shutoff valve, he said.
The line provides water to nothing but the fire hydrant that had vanished, and therefore the break did not affect water service to the building.
McCabe consulted with Building Commissioner Robert Marsilia at the scene and said no residents would be forced out of the building since no water got inside the building, and since water and fire-protection systems that serve residents continued to function.
This is what the sinkhole looked like toward the end. I went inside to view the hole from Ralls’ apartment just above, and was in there when the water was finally shut off.
McCabe said many of the city’s mills have old tunnels running under them from the days when water was a primary power source. He said water from the broken line had apparently gone through one of those tunnels and under the building.
If not for the presence of those tunnels, McCabe said water from the broken line likely would have penetrated the building or shot up out of the ground.
The water likely hollowed out space in the area for a while before the ground above collapsed into the void.
“Considering what happened here, we’re pretty lucky,” McCabe said.
“Knowing you walked over that same area so many times is definitely scary,” said Andrew Sheehan, who has lived in the building for about two years.
Julia Malakie will have more photos, including shots from out Ralls’ window, in Wednesday’s paper.