Water service resumes at Philly airport after 24-inch main burst

C.J. Mariney, of North Philadelphia, who works with Parkway at Philadelphia International Airport, checks on water pressure – finding none – in the restroom May 7, 2018 after a water main break under the parking lot shut down the water to all terminals.

A massive water main broke open Monday underneath the economy parking lot at Philadelphia International Airport, shutting down water pressure to all terminals for hours  — making conditions and just about everyone inside the airport miserable — before service was restored in the evening, city and airport officials said.

While the water pressure was out, the fountains didn’t work, the toilets couldn’t flush, and the faucets were out of commission. This meant that the many bars and restaurants inside the airport had to suspend operations until the pressure was restored. But that didn’t happen until about 8 p.m., just over three hours after the main break.

Outside, surrounded by tow trucks, repairmen, and police tape, Debra McCarty, the Water Department commissioner, walked around in the darkness surveying a sinkhole at least 20 feet in diameter and filled with muddy water after “a big main, a 24-inch main, that fed into the airport burst and lost about four million gallons of water,” she said.

“We had to close the valves feeding into it” from local reservoirs, she added.

Fourteen vehicles had to be towed from the lot and the airport said Tuesday that returning travelers who parked in the area and do not find their cars should call 215-683-9842.

It didn’t take long after the main broke just before 5 o’clock for fliers and visitors to go on social media to vent.

One such passenger was American College retirement expert and professor Jamie Hopkins, who tweeted: “This is a first — no water in all of philly airport — bathrooms are,” followed by an emoji for a bad smell.

In an interview later, Hopkins, who is based in Bryn Mawr and was waiting to fly out of Terminal F, said: “We found out about it because we were at a restaurant in Terminal F, and the wait staff told us they were shutting down. There were no announcements on the address system or anything. It’s a mess.”

Another traveler, Joseph Lichterman, who was headed to Austin, Texas, out of Terminal C, had a similar complaint.

“People are a little confused and frustrated. I tried filling my water bottle at the drinking fountain and it wouldn’t work. I went into the restroom. One toilet was clogged and no one knew why,” Lichterman said. “So far, the convenience stores are open, so I bought bottled water.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Water Department officials and workers survey the economy parking lot at Philadelphia International Airport after a water main broke underneath it, creating a loss of water pressure to all terminals at the airport.

Jamba Juice couldn’t wash its blenders without water, so it had temporarily stopped selling,  said Lichterman, senior business associate at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the company that publishes the Inquirer and Daily News.

Chickie’s & Pete’s isn’t attached to the airport water system, so it was business as usual there, Lichterman added.

McCarty said the system feeding the airport works on gravity, as water is pumped from reservoirs into storage tanks and then through mains into the international flight hub.

Even after the main was fixed and water restored, confusion reigned for some time among disembarking and arriving passengers, including Bill and Ellen Brooke of Collegeville. They had just returned from a wedding in Oklahoma.

“I tried three bathrooms after we arrived and no luck. They were filled with toilet paper and other stuff,” Ellen said

“The men’s rooms were working,” Bill piped up.

Near the break, the Parking Authority was towing away roughly two dozen vehicles parked in Area H of the economy lot, near the sinkhole. Meanwhile, the Water Department said it was prepared to work all night and into Tuesday repairing the broken main.

“I don’t think any cars were damaged, but we need to get them moved just in case the sinkhole widens,” McCarty said.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Shannon Smith and Cole Taggart, both from North Jersey, trek through mud in the economy parking lot at Philadelphia International Airport. The two were returning from Louisville after attending the Kentucky Derby.

Earlier, airport spokeswoman Mary Flannery found herself fielding questions that had no easy answer, such as when the problem would be fixed.

“The Water Department is working on it, and we apologize to our customers. We know how inconvenient this is,” she said.

No flights were canceled because of the water problem, Flannery said.