Hydrant headaches

Four southeast Columbus families are still dealing with consequences of their homes suffering water damage a month after a driver struck a fire hydrant.

A Columbus man, Philip J. Orr, became distracted the afternoon of May 14 by an incoming cellphone call while driving his SUV westbound on McKinley Avenue, according to police reports.

When the 52-year-old Indiana Avenue resident attempted to see who was calling, his GMC Envoy veered off the right side of the road and struck a fire hydrant at the east corner of McKinley Avenue and Parkway Drive.

That gushing hydrant was near the home of retired firefighter Paul Rothrock, his wife, Paula, and 18-year-old grandson, William.

“It was a multitude of different things, one right after the other, that just turned everything into one big mess,” said Rothrock, who said his home at 3110 McKinley Ave. sustained more than $13,000 in damage.

Rothrock recounted what he witnessed and experienced.

After the hydrant began spouting water and silt, utility crews were promptly called. But while they shut off every nearby valve they could find, the gushing continued, Rothrock said.

A chart ultimately led the utility crews to the proper shutoff valve, which was submerged, requiring use of a metal detector to find it, he said.

Rothrock said a paving crew had accidentally laid asphalt on top of the shutoff valve last summer. A chisel was used to chip the blacktop off the valve. But when the casing was opened, it was so full of mud that a vacuum truck had to be brought in to remove the silt, he said.

The water was turned off about two hours after the hydrant was struck, but not before an estimated 300,000 gallons of water poured from the broken hydrant, Rothrock estimated.

Parkway Drive, which was submerged in several inches of water, remained caked with mud for two-and-a-half weeks after the accident, the homeowner said.

Among the homes suffering significant damage was one at 350 Parkway Drive, occupied by Jose Manuel Vaca Arenas and his three children.

Arenas’ basement was flooded almost to the floorboards, which destroyed both the home’s furnace and hot water heater, he said.

Connie Hatcher was in New Mexico caring for an ill parent as 3 feet of water poured into her basement at the west corner of McKinley and Parkway, Rothrock said.

Once she returned to Indiana, Hatcher filled her yard at 3090 McKinley Ave. with a wide variety of damaged possessions, hoping that the sun would dry them.

Just north of Rothrock’s home, water and silt also poured into Larry Garries’ basement at 335 Parkway Drive. While occupant Thelma Garries declined to give details, she described the damage as “sickening and awful.”

Two doors north of the accident site, water also seeped into the Covenant Family Worship Center, 3070 McKinley Ave., resulting in carpet and floor damage.

“But it was nothing compared to what the nearby homes sustained,” church member Fernando Pena said.

As for Rothrock’s home, the water and silt wiped out about three-quarters of his front yard, destroyed his lawn sprinkler system and filled up his crawlspace, he said.

“I felt this was the most premier yard in the area,” Rothrock said as he looked over the barren area in front of his home. “No weeds, no dandelions. It was perfect.”

The issue of financial liability has resulted in frustration for the neighbors.

Arenas said he has spent $600 cleaning out his own basement, but no contractor has been willing to come to his residence unless payment is made upfront, he said.

So Arenas and a friend are attempting to fix his furnace, hot water heater and plumbing problems.

Rothrock said Hatcher has spent thousands on upholstery and carpet cleaning, and that he has spent $1,000 of his own money to haul away items that cannot be salvaged.

As for what was his pristine front yard, a landscaper won’t be available to work on his yard until the end of this month, he said.

It’s unclear which responsible parties — if any — will help pay for the damage, he said.

Despite everything that occurred, Rothrock said the results could have been worse.

Surveillance video taken by his security system shows a couple walking around the hydrant just before it was struck.

Had the accident happened 30 seconds earlier, those people could have been killed, Rothrock said.

Dangers of distracted driving

A 2013 study commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that cellphone use by drivers — such as reaching for the phone, looking up a contact, and dialing the number — makes motorists and their passengers three times more likely to be in an accident.

A 2014 analysis by the Columbus Police Department shows distracted driving is the third-leading cause of local accidents.   

Besides phone use, the federal government identified the most common driver distractions that lead to crashes as:

  • Eating, drinking and smoking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming
  • Reading, including maps
  • Using a navigation system
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player

Each year, more than 3,100 people are killed and an estimated 424,000 are injured in the United States as a result of distracted driving, the NHTSA said.  

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.