Burst water line causes street, building collapse in downtown St. Petersburg (w/video)

The broken water line causes road closures and stress for stores in St. Petersburg.

Published February 26 2015
Updated February 27 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — An old water pipe burst Wednesday night downtown, flooding a small area off Central Avenue until part of the road and an adjacent building collapsed, authorities said.

Crews spent most of Thursday cleaning the mess and securing the building, which might be demolished this morning. The hole at the southeast corner of Seventh Street and Central Avenue was about 50 feet wide and 20 to 25 feet deep, and extended under 670 Central Ave., a small space rented by the Underground Network, a nonprofit collective of small Christian ministries based in Tampa.

Deputy Fire Marshal Steve Lawrence said the burst pipe was a 12-inch transmission line that was 50 to 60 years old. The downtown district contains some of the oldest infrastructure in the city, and a plan had been in place to replace pipes in the area before Thursday, officials said. The north-south transmission line was supposed to have a 100-year lifespan.

Lawrence said a call about a leak reached St. Petersburg's water department about 10 p.m. Wednesday. The first workers at the scene could not stem the flow.

About 5 a.m., Lawrence said, part of Seventh Street began to crumble. Four hours later, a chunk of the building fell. The structure was unoccupied at the time and no one was injured, he said.

The Underground Network just opened the Central Avenue space, at the corner of a small row of shops, in January, said Jeremy Stephens, the group's associate director.

"Everything was up to code, and we weren't doing any kind of rebuild," Stephens said.

About half a dozen religious groups were using the space, he said, doing everything from dancing to working with the homeless. The system is similar to tech startups sharing virtual office space — except the Underground Network provides the facility to small faith-based ministries for free.

"It feels like we've disappointed them, that's how it feels," Stephens said. The Underground Network will remove its furnishings and begin looking for a new space, he said.

Authorities had not determined the official cause of the leak late Thursday. The wall that partially collapsed is load-bearing, and crews used a large forklift to prop it up while they cleared and filled the hole. Lawrence expected workers to remain there through the night.

The church is separated from the store next door, Daddy Kool Records, by a firewall. To save the rest of the businesses, engineers planned to cut the church structure from the record store and a demolition team might then knock down the remaining part of the damaged building as early as this morning, Lawrence said.

Authorities closed Central Avenue to car traffic between Sixth and Eighth streets all day Thursday, and city workers shut off water to the immediate area for hours. The mess hampered businesses such as a coffee shop across the street, Brew D Licious, which closed with a sign tacked to the window: "No water, no coffee!"

Lawrence said water service was eventually restored to most businesses on the block by about 2 p.m. Daddy Kool Records tweeted about 10 a.m. that the store was "unexpectedly closed" due to the collapse.

Nearby, Badr Elamin, manager at El's Menswear, said February is a short month for small businesses and rent usually comes due on the first. Any slowdown in business is tough. By late Thursday morning, Elamin was already worried about the effect of the collapse.

"This isn't going to be settled today," he said.

At just about closing time, the city announced that Central Avenue would remain shut through at least this morning.

Times staff writer Katie Mettler contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] Follow @zacksampson.

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