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Street Vanishes in Subway Sinkhole : MTA: Burst water main weakens earth above tunnel, causing half a block of Hollywood Boulevard to collapse.

June 23, 1995|LARRY GORDON and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Half a block of Hollywood Boulevard collapsed Thursday into a cavernous and muddy sinkhole above subway construction, shutting down tunneling under the famous thoroughfare for at least two months and closing down businesses and a nearby psychiatric hospital.

A burst water main had weakened the earth between the street and the tunnel, causing huge chunks of pavement to break. The enormous, water-filled sinkhole--70 feet square and growing--cracked open the street directly in front of the busy Barnsdall Park construction staging site for the subway. Officials were investigating what caused the pipe to break.

The flood sent 20 Metro Rail workers scrambling from the flooded tunnel, but no injuries were reported.

The mishap created more political headaches for the subway project, which was halted last year when another section of Hollywood Boulevard sank up to 10 inches.

The latest problem occurred when subway workers were trying to fix another snafu--a 6- to 8-inch misalignment in an 80-foot section of the tunnel.

City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who visited the site Thursday morning, said she was furious to learn that tunneling was still taking place in her district after being assured that it had ended.

"It's an enormous mess," said Goldberg, who grew angrier when another chunk of the street caved in after MTA officials had assured her everything was under control.

The first evidence that something was amiss came about 3:40 a.m., when workers were cutting through the tunnel liner. After noticing the dirt beginning to settle very quickly, they hurriedly began putting up support beams, but it was "too little, too late," said an MTA spokesman.

Cal/OSHA inspector Joe Doyle ordered the workers out and then, "suddenly, there was a huge wall of water that just came rushing out of the tunnel," said Fire Capt. Richard Brunson, who rushed to the scene at the first reports of trouble.

"There was a loud noise," said Fire Capt. Chris Burton, noting that he heard the sound of wood cracking and then saw beams shoot out of the 50-foot-deep tunnel shaft at Barnsdall Park. At one point, he said, the force of the water bent a metal pipe in half.

"It was one of the most destructive forces I've ever seen," said the 22-year veteran. "It's incredible we didn't lose anyone."

MTA spokesman Jim Smart estimated that the cleanup would take two months.

"It is certainly going to put a crimp in our schedule," Smart added.

About 60 patients were evacuated from a nearby psychiatric hospital and 10 stores were closed near the collapsed street.

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A three-block section of Hollywood Boulevard--from Vermont Avenue to Edgemont Street--was expected to be closed for at least two weeks. The area is a commercial stretch in a neighborhood populated mainly by Armenian and Latino immigrants.

That East Hollywood neighborhood suffered badly in the Northridge earthquake last year and repair work is continuing on some nearby buildings.

City Department of Water and Power engineers bristled at MTA suggestions that earthquake damage to the water pipe might have set off the incident.

"That's their standard response," said an engineer who asked not to be identified. The MTA "always tries to pin it on somebody else. They're never going to take responsibility."

The hole began on the south side of the boulevard, between Edgemont and Berendo Street, just in front of the subway construction site and the Pollo Dorado restaurant.

"I'm so worried about it, I don't know what to do," said Min Jung, a Diamond Bar resident who has owned the Mexican-style restaurant with her husband, Michael, for 12 years. They stood for hours on Edgemont Street, peering across the yellow police tape toward their business and the nine other shuttered stores in the corner shopping center. None had electricity or water service Thursday.

The Jungs said that they had complained several times over the past two years to the MTA about how subway tunneling seemed to be cracking the restaurant's floor and causing some sinkage of the building.

"We've been complaining all the time and they didn't do anything about it," she said.

Standing with them was Mike Karamanoukian, who has owned the Edgemont Pharmacy next door for three years. A North Hollywood resident, he heard about the sinkhole on television at home early Thursday and rushed to his business.

"That's something amazing," he said, pointing to the monstrous hole. "It's incredible that something like that would happen."

He said his shop had suffered no cracks from subway construction before Thursday.

About 11 a.m., an evacuation began from Edgemont Hospital, a psychiatric care facility that has two low-rise buildings on the northern side of the boulevard. The hospital could reopen within a day or two, officials said.

A large contingent of police officers guarded the pathway as the patients were boarded onto two MTA buses and one police bus for movement to several other private facilities in Los Angeles County, officials said.

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