St. Louis Fire Truck Stuck for Hours in Sinkhole

Aug. 07--One end of a St. Louis fire truck was stuck in pavement up to its axle for about two hours this morning after a street partly collapsed.

It happened before 6 a.m. near Ninth and Wyoming streets, south of the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

The pumper truck and a medic unit had been in the 900 block of Withnell Avenue for a report of a 62-year-old man who collapsed on a sidewalk and died. St. Louis police say the man had no apparent signs of trauma, and a witness who knew him said he'd been in poor health recently. The case is being classified as a sudden death, not a homicide, police say.

The pumper was on its way back from that call when it got stuck in the sinkhole, said Capt. Garon Mosby of the St. Louis Fire Department. No one on the firetruck was injured in the incident.

An inspector with the St. Louis streets department examined the collapse and the pavement surrounding it to decide how to get the truck out. The obvious concern is that the sinkhole will get bigger as crews work to remove the truck.

"Sinkholes, they go small to big," Mosby said. "We basically have this truck sitting in a hole that's already started."

The truck was removed from the hole by 8 a.m. Crews used an inflatable bag to raise the truck, then put a steel plate over the hole and the truck was backed out safely. The truck weighs 48,500 pounds and costs about a half-million dollars. It was not damaged. Tow hooks on the front of the truck braced the truck from falling even more -- the hooks caught on the pavement so the truck's undercarriage didn't drop. Firefighters took core samples in three spots east of where the truck was. Those tests told them that there was support beneath the street and they would be able to safely back the truck out.

Most of the time when a sinkhole starts in a street, it's a sewer that fails or a water main, and those utility companies will have to do the repairs. Normally a sewer collapse is the culprit when the hole is deep, said Todd Waelterman, the city's street director.

The gas company shut the gas off in case a gas line ruptured, then the truck was removed. Sometimes, these holes take two or three weeks to repair.

Since only the truck's front tire was stuck, that is the sign of a small hole. Last September, about the same time of morning, "we had a whole trash truck fall in" when a sinkhole opened up in an alley, Waelterman said. "The guy went to go pick up a Dumpster up and the truck fell in six feet. All you could see was the driver's head."

The trash truck driver wasn't hurt. The city ended up excavating the alley and built a road, then drove the truck out of the hole that afternoon.

The trash truck was brand new, $230,000, and had only been on the road about a month or two. In that case, it was an entire sewer main that collapsed at about 6:45 a.m. Sept. 24, in an alley near Blair and Newhouse avenues.

"The hole was as big as your kitchen," he said. "This hole (on 9th & Wyoming) here is probably the size of a bathroom."

Waelterman said these things happen in a city with aging infrastructure.

"It's a failing infrastructure," Waelterman explained. "We have sewers that are over 100 years old and there are no resources out there to replace them. And the water pipes are just as old. Those two things are reaching the end of their life in many areas."

With only the front tire of the fire truck in a hole, it could be just a six-inch pipe known as a sewer lateral, which connects to a sewer main.

The streets department gets "a couple thousand calls a year" in which somebody spots the ground sinking a little bit and suspects a sewer lateral has gone bad.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Fire officials initially said the truck was stuck in the sinkhole before it reached the scene of a man who collapsed. This version has been updated to clarify that the truck was returning from that scene.

Kim Bell covers breaking news for www.STLtoday.com and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at 314-340-8115 or kbell@post-dispatch.com

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