Lauren Hansen 757-925-1660
Jeffrey Caldwell 804-786-2715


July 10, 2009

Agency Commissions Review Panel to Develop Report and Long-Term Action Plan

SUFFOLK — The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) announced today its preliminary review of the events that led to the July 2 closure of the Interstate 64 West Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) due to a fire main break.

During a public meeting this morning, officials described a series of incidents surrounding the rupture of a 52-year-old cast-iron fire main pipe (at right, click for high-resolution version) encased in concrete beneath the westbound tunnel’s road surface. Fragment of broken pipe

Approximately two million gallons of water from the fire hydrant supply system filled underground ducts and eventually caused the complete closure of the westbound tunnel as water pooled in the travel lanes.

“An event of this magnitude that closed a major interstate for more than eight hours and caused travel delays for thousands of motorists is a grave concern for our department,” said Commissioner David S. Ekern. “We will determine exactly what went wrong to cause this event and what steps we can put into place to better respond to incidents of this nature in the future. We expect it to take several weeks to fully understand all of the contributing factors that led to this serious breakdown of our transportation system, but we are committed to a transparent investigation of this incident.”

Commissioner Ekern and Hampton Roads District Administrator Dennis Heuer briefed elected officials and the public about the known factors that led to a fire main break 2,800 feet inside the western end of the tunnel. The broken main flowed for more than eight hours before it was identified and traffic was diverted.

The water pipe burst while maintenance crews were responding to several tunnel emergencies caused by a strong storm that struck the area around 9 p.m. July 1.

Tunnel maintenance teams were dispatched to address downed power lines that closed the Route 17 James River Bridge, power outages at the I-664 Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel and at the HRBT, and water pumps running unexpectedly at the HRBT.

Maintenance crew members were dispatched to address these multiple issues throughout the night, but the fire main break went undetected in the seven-foot high duct system beneath the roadway. The pumps meant to remove rainwater that collects in the tunnels underground containment tanks could not keep up with the amount of water flooding the tunnel. These pumps eventually malfunctioned, causing water to rise even more quickly.

The investigation thus far has determined that the fire main break and the flooding beneath the tunnel were not directly related to the weather events taking place. The break occurred at approximately the same time as the storm, but was not caused by weather impacts. VDOT has determined that the flooding was a mechanical issue unrelated to the weather but the response was complicated by other events related to the storm.

VDOT closed the road for more than eight hours July 2 while crews addressed the flooding and began pumping water from the roadway. Over the next week, overnight lane closures were used to pump out the water beneath the roadway and to diagnose the cause of the water flow.

At no time was public safety threatened by the rising water underground. The tunnel itself was never breached or in danger due to this fire main break.

“We do not know all of the mechanical and man-made factors that resulted in this long-term closure and highway gridlock, but we know that our systems and procedures did not work properly to identify the flooding and keep it from significantly impacting traffic,” Ekern said. “We have initially been focused on reopening the tunnel to traffic and diagnosing the source of the water. Work will now commence to studying why this incident took place and what can be done to mitigate any similar incident in the future.”

VDOT has already enacted measures to drain the flooded duct system, repair the broken pumps and restore traffic to the travel lanes inside the tunnel. Ekern has established a review team comprised of representatives from the Virginia Transportation Research Council, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission, Virginia State Police, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, the Federal Highway Administration and other experts.

This team will review the incident timeline, maintenance records and protocols that were in place the night of the flood, and to recommend a long-term action plan to address any findings.

“We will conduct this review in full view of the public, but we are sensitive to the security issues surrounding a facility of this kind and we will continue to safeguard detailed information that could be used by those wishing to cause harm to the residents of Hampton Roads,” Ekern said.

For the latest information about the tunnel flooding, and to view the presentation given during the meeting July 10, click

Information in VDOT news releases was accurate at the time the release was published. For the most current information about projects or programs, please visit the project or program Web pages. You may find those by searching by keyword in the search Virginia DOT box above.

Page last modified: Oct. 17, 2012