Heroes in hardhats: The men who kept the water flowing in Prince George’s

HYATTSVILLE, Md. – Tom Ecker, Brad Destelhorst, Jimmy Bowen and Billy Dove would not take no for an answer.

The four Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission staffers were pretty sure they had a way to avoid a total shutdown of water to more than 100,000 WSSC customers. But it would mean getting past a stuck valve.

“Either I was going to have to get broken or every tool that I had was going to have to get broken to get the job done” said Destelhorst.

Ecker said a lot was riding on that valve.

“We knew if we could get that valve to work, it would save a lot of headaches for the Commission,” and save customers from going without water. “I mean, that’s our goal, to keep people (supplied) with fresh, clean, safe water.”

Their idea was this: If they could divert water from the 54-inch pipe that was failing, they could keep water flowing. The problem was, if that valve didn’t close, they had no way to re-route the water. So their work began.

Destelhorst described the working conditions.

“I was 20 feet under the ground, standing in about 3 feet of water, operating an electric grinder.” Destelhorst, who likes to work on cars, says he took one look at part of the mechanism and a light bulb went off in his head. “It reminded me of the rear end of a vehicle.” He’d worked on plenty of those. So he kept at it.

Ecker and Destelhorst weren’t alone in the operation. Billy Dove, the chief water distribution operator, and Jimmy Bowen, electrical mechanical unit coordinator, were in on the plan as well.

Bowen gave the OK. But no one was sure the valve would budge or whether the work-around would hold. When it did, they said, they were happy.

But as they talked to reporters a day later, they downplayed their roles to keep the water running.

“That’s why we’re here: It’s our job,” said Destelhorst.

Asked about the criticism that WSSC CEO Jerry Johnson and the commission may have jumped the gun by calling on residents to prepare to go without water for days, Ecker shook his head, telling reporters, “You guys have no clue what it takes to operate this system. That’s what I think.”

Johnson credited the four workers for avoiding a total shut down of water service. But he defended the decision to tell customers to plan for no water service for days. That advanced warning caused residents to descend upon grocery stores buying water and hotels, restaurants and salons had to cancel appointments and bookings for several days.

“If I had to make that decision again today, I would make the same decision,” Johnson says.

There was no way of knowing whether the valve fix would hold, he says.

For now, water restrictions remain in place for customers in the affected area.

Johnson says repairs to the 54-inch pipe near Forestville have gone well so far. But there will be an 18-hour incubation period before service can be fully restored once the repairs are completed.

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WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @kateryanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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