Suspected water main break uproots road, leaves SW Detroit residents in limbo

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A suspected water main break beneath a southwest Detroit marijuana dispensary Saturday caused a 10-foot mound to bubble up in the middle of Dearborn Street and affected nearby gas and electric lines.

An emergency crew will move quickly to demolish the building at the southwest corner of Fort and Dearborn streets because it is "considered at immediate risk of collapse onto the sidewalk and utility lines," a press release from the Detroit Department of Public Works said.

After the water main break, residents said Fort Street was flooded with a yellowish liquid.

City officials Sunday closed Fort Street between Miller Road and Dearborn Street — a major truck artery — along with sections of other streets. There are no residences within a few hundred yards of the intersection that's across the street from Woodmere Cemetery, and near metal scrapyards and other industrial businesses.

About two dozen residents lost power because of the incident, city officials said.

The odor of gas still lingered Sunday outside the Stash Provisioning Center dispensary, while angry residents complained that nobody in authority told them what happened or whether the fumes were toxic. 

The DPW press release, issued about 24 hours after the water main break, warned residents to stay out of the blocked-off area, but there was no mention of the odor.

"DTE reports less than 25 customers are without gas in the area and have gone door-to-door to communicate with residents," the release said.

The rear of the building that houses the dispensary was raised several feet Sunday, while nearby street poles were tilted, apparently from the force of the bursting underground water pipe, which residents said happened between 8-8:30 p.m. Saturday.

"The Detroit Fire Marshal has identified an emergency contractor to demolish a commercial building at Fort and Dearborn that was heavily damaged due to the underground issues and is considered at immediate risk of collapse onto the sidewalk and utility lines," the press release said.

Fire Department investigators initially blamed a natural gas leak for the explosion, but later determined it was a "major water event like a broken water main," Fornell said. "The investigation continues."

Multiple dispensary employees were inside the building when the explosion occurred, but nobody was hurt, said Stash general manager Ashley Babcock.

"You can replace a building, and you can replace the product, but you can't replace people," she said.

Babcock and other residents say they've been calling DTE for more than a month to report smelling gas. Three residents said the gas odor was heavier than ever Saturday in the hours leading up to the water main break.

DTE spokeswoman Clare Liening said in a statement: "“A collaborative investigation is underway by the City of Detroit, the Great Lakes Water Authority and DTE Energy.

"At this time, there is no evidence to indicate natural gas was the cause of the incident; a natural gas explosion did not occur," Liening  said. "However, parts of DTE's gas and electric infrastructure were impacted by a water main break."

Babcock said she called DTE "countless times" because of the gas scent.

"We’ve had gas leak problems for quite a while," she said. "We were really worried about it. Some days it was really strong, some days weaker. The DTE crews dug up in front of the building and though they fixed it, but the problem kept occurring."

DTE workers walk past the surface of Dearborn Street that was heaved up by an apparent explosion.

Residents said they are used to loud noises and ground vibrations from passing trains and factories in the neighborhood that abuts Delray, but said were rattled by Saturday's disturbance.

"We would like to know what is going on," Dearborn Street resident Victor Grenados said. "There is a really heavy smell of gas and we don't have a lot of water pressure in our house."

Stash Provisioning Center was damaged by the apparent explosion.

Gary Buchannan, who lives on nearby Kaier Street, said the gasoline that flooded Dearborn Street "looked like lemonade" and the air "reeks like you stuck your head in a gas can."

Buchannan said his two children have asthma, so they are staying with their grandparents and he is staying home to make sure everything is OK.

Candida Leon, who lives on Dearborn Street, said the odor is making her nauseous and giving her a headache. She said she's concerned because she has lung problems.

"Nobody has been informed. Nobody has told us anything," Leon said.

About a half-hour after the city's press release was emailed, Leon said she still was in the dark about what happened.

"They said they're going around door-to-door? Nobody came to my door."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN