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1975: Dry town
By CHRIS BAUD / The Trentonian
Water was on everyone's minds in 1975. The worst floods since the hurricanes of '55 hit the Trenton area in July, as two separate rainstorms within a week brought 8.2 inches of rain, leading to the evacuation of 1,600 homes, most of them in Trenton and Hamilton Township.

The area had barely recovered from those thunderstorms, which caused $15 million in damages, when another crisis involving water -- this time the lack of it -- disrupted all aspects of day-to-day life in Mercer County as summer drew to a close. But the culprit wasn't Mother Nature, it was simply a mechanical error.

It began at the Trenton Water Filtration Plant on Route 29 on Sunday, Aug. 31. At approximately 10 a.m., a valve failed at the 20-year-old plant. As one pump was shut down and another one started, a cone valve should have closed. The valve malfunctioned, though, causing the backup of a million gallons of water from the Delaware River. The unclean water poured into reserve tanks containing treated water.

As the water rose, filtration superintendent Ellsworth Bushnell shut off the main breaker switch in the plant at 11:35 a.m. as water rose near the 4,160-volt electric motors, preventing the electrocution of workers. But the plant's seven pumps were all damaged.

Workers could not close the valve on the Number 2 pump until midnight, when compressed air was forced into the line. City and volunteer firemen worked tirelessly to pump water out of the plant.

Rudolph Fuessel Jr., chief of the Lawrence Township Slackwood Volunteer Fire Department, came up with the idea of "turbulent ejection" -- a method of high-speed siphoning -- to stem the flooding and lower water levels at the plant so that the pumps could be removed.

Plant chief engineer Lewis Klockner and Trenton Public Works Director Joseph Tuccillo were faced with the task of shipping out the seven 10-ton motors to be dismantled and dried out before the plant could be up and running.

But no one was aware of the gravity of the situation. Residents still had water from the reservoir's 110 million-gallon supply. With many residents away for Labor Day, it was believed the daily water consumption would be much less than the usual 35 million gallons, and that repairs would be made before the reservoir ran out.

"Everyone close to it felt that, while it would be touch-and-go, we could make it," Trenton Mayor Arthur Holland said at the time.

The situation grew more serious, however, when it was discovered that the top of the clear well, the 200-foot culvert at the foundation of the plant, had been blown out by water. The plant and its 65,000 connections, which supplied water to 250,000 residents in Trenton, Hamilton, Ewing and Lawrence, would be out of business longer than expected.

"We found out there was more damage than we anticipated," recalled Tuccillo, who served as director for 20 years, retiring in 1990. "When the water was ripped out of the filtration pump the pipe backfired and that came right back into the filtration plant, creating a waterhammer.

"Waterhammer -- I'll never forget that word as long as I live."

It was later revealed that the filtration plant lacked a limiter switch, which prevents the pump motors from switching off until the cone valve is fully closed.

When the "off" button is pushed to turn off the pump, there is a 45-second delay while the cone valve is activated. The 45 seconds should give the valve enough time to close.

Without the limiter switch, it's up to the operator to watch the cone valve and hit the "on" button if the valve fails to close.

Number 2 showed symptoms of a "lazy valve," and did not close all the way. As operators turned on Pump Number 4, the biggest pump in the plant, the concrete floor ruptured.

With water rushing back through Number 2's cone valve, turning on Number 4 doubled the amount of water surging back through Number 2, splitting the floor and creating a waterhammer effect. That in turn broke a concrete culvert, lifting the floor and allowing 1.5 million gallons of water in clear well tanks to pour into the culvert and into the pump room.

By late Monday night, the reservoir was down to 46 million gallons.

Bureaucratic delays made the crisis worse. It took Mayor Holland nearly two hours to contact Gov. Brendan Byrne to inform him of the situation. Byrne responded by telling the mayor he needed a written request for a declaration of emergency, forcing Holland to send a telegram five blocks from City Hall to the State House.

After an emergency meeting with his staff, the governor finally informed the public of his executive order at 3 p.m. Soon after, local radio stations told the public to boil tap water, as the loss of water pressure meant contaminated water would find its way into people's taps.

Schools in Trenton, Hamilton, Ewing and Lawrence were closed, as were most Mercer County offices. Municipal offices remained open, manned by skeleton crews. Businesses were ordered to stop using water, even if it meant shutting down, putting 10,000 people out of work for the week.

The N.J. Office of Civil Defense issued tips on weathering the crisis:

* Melt ice cubes for drinking water.

* Drink milk and soft drinks, or juice from canned fruits and vegetables.

* Drain water from hot water heaters or from the flush tanks of toilets.

With the lack of water, fires posed the biggest threat to the community. By the estimate of Trenton Deputy Fire Chief Robert Kerr, the city trucks held 20,000 gallons on Sept. 2. A blaze like the one that had consumed the Trenton Civic Center in July that year would have exhausted that supply within minutes.

Massive efforts from neighboring communities combated the crisis, supplying the affected areas with drinking water and water for fighting fires. One hundred firemen on 40 rigs stretched hoses to pump water from Princeton's Elizabeth Water Co. into the city. Volunteers from Bucks County, Pa., pumped water through five lines over the Calhoun Street bridge into hydrants near the filtration plant on Route 29.

Meanwhile, Lockwood Electric Service in Hamilton fixed the motors, and the pumps were dried out. Thirty-five tons of concrete were poured to fix the floor of the filtration plant.

"It took us a good seven days to make the repairs," said Tuccillo, who spent the entire week at the plant. "All things considered, it was pretty amazing that we were able to do it in a week. You've got to pour the concrete in, let it dry, run the water through.

"I don't think anyone could have handled it better than Lew Klockner. They did a magnificent job and worked practically around the clock."

While those seven days were hard on Tuccillo and those working to repair the plant, the shortages created huge inconveniences for residents.

"I remember that we couldn't use the shower, and my son Johnny had an apartment in Morrisville," said Barbara Chell, a resident of Villa Park at the time. "We had to go over there to take a shower, and we brought over milk containers to fill them with water."

Beauty salons were forced to drop the shampoo from their shampoo-and-set services.

Residents were told to use plastic, paper and other disposable utensils and plates to avoid washing dishes.

To flush a toilet, people had to hold a pail of water several feet above the bowl and pour it in.

Panicked residents swarmed supermarkets, but at a time before bottled water was fashionable, most stores had less than 20 gallons on hand for water. Those gallons sold quickly, despite their cost, ranging from 65 to 97 cents.

It became a crime to wash cars or water lawns. Anyone not complying with water restrictions faced six months in jail and a $175 fine. When asked if he would actually put someone in jail for washing a car, an exhausted Holland responded: "Depends on how big the car is."

Although Gov. Byrne ordered state workers back to their jobs on Sept. 4, work at the State House ground to a halt. Part of the reason? Port-A-Johns were set up -- 15 exactly -- around the courthouse. Some departments ran buses to lavatories on Parkway Avenue.

Slowly but surely, water came trickling back to Trenton. The lower-lying areas in South Trenton and Chambersburg were the first to get water pressure. But residents were still told to boil the water before using it, and restrictions remained.

Finally, on Sept. 10, Trenton's drinking water was declared safe. The city's reservoir climbed slowly past the 33-million gallon mark (a day's supply) and health officials lifted the ban on drinking water directly from the tap.

With the water hyperchlorinated -- that is, getting a dosage of chlorine 2 to 3 times stronger than regular -- it had a funny taste, and one woman reported that the new water killed her goldfish. But it was safe for human consumption, and the crisis was over.

"We managed and it proved that the city can unite and get together," Councilman John Cipriano said. "We had a plan put together and it worked out well."

The total bill for the crisis came to $10 million, some of which was owed to neighboring towns, most notably Bordentown, looking to cash in on their "altruism."

"These towns were all saying they just wanted to help out," Tuccillo said, "but we got socked with some pretty big bills."

In June 1976, a report released by the governor's office and compiled by Environmental Protection Commissioner David Bardin blamed city mismanagement and human error for the crisis, a report that Mayor Holland vehemently objected to.

Holland pointed out that the report was contradictory. Bardin blamed the city for the water utility's deficiencies while also acknowledging the problem could have been avoided if the city had gotten the water rate increases it had asked the state for.

"We were not granted the rate increase we asked for," Holland said. "We had asked for 42 percent and we got 24 percent.

"The breakdown confirmed the justification for our request. It's a heck of a way to justify something."