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Broken water main causes woe in Missoula
A water company worker glances up at the construction crane on Front Street on Tuesday after a water main break caused worry that the crane might be unstable.

A construction crane in downtown Missoula is scheduled to come down next week, but a water main break Tuesday briefly raised fears that it might happen sooner.

Firefighters and police blocked several downtown streets, closed the Higgins Avenue Bridge and evacuated businesses because of concerns that the crane at the First Interstate Bank construction site might collapse after a 10-inch steel water main broke at 9:30 a.m.

Rich Austad, a Macy's employee, was taking out the trash around that time and said "it looked like a river" flowing into the nearby alley and onto Higgins Avenue.

No customers were in Macy's at the time; the store opens at 10 a.m.

The crane's cement pillars straddled the broken water main, located 6½ feet underground, said Arvid Hiller, general manager of Mountain Water Co.

The concern came because officials didn't know how the saturated soil would affect the stability of the crane and were worried that it could even cause the crane to collapse.

First Interstate Bank, Macy's, the Florence Building and businesses north of the Wilma were all evacuated for several hours until structural engineers and soil specialists could assess the crane's stability.

Kevin Gordon of Gordon Construction, the general contractor on the First Interstate project, knew there was a "remote possibility" that the crane would topple.

But in speaking with the structural engineer who designed the crane's footing, Gordon said that even with no dirt around the foundation, the crane is still stable.

Around 11 a.m., the crane's operator climbed up into the control booth and moved the long arm 90 degrees to the north. That way, had the crane collapsed, it would have fallen back into the construction site and not into the downtown area.

"I was pretty certain from the get-go it wasn't going to fall over," Gordon said.

Streets re-opened to traffic just before noon and businesses opened their doors to customers.

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On Tuesday afternoon, construction crews were still moving equipment and material so Mountain Water workers could dig up the broken section of pipe. It's unknown how or why the water main broke, but it's unlikely that it was due to the cold weather, Hiller said. There was some "unusual pressure" on the main.

"It looks like the whole section of the pipe broke loose," he said.

Mountain Water plans to fix the line today.

Mike Hickey, president of First Interstate Bank's Missoula operation, said the construction project was the least of his concerns. Hickey was more worried about evacuating employees and continuing service to customers.

A larger crane is scheduled to come to Missoula next week to disassemble the crane. The crane reaches higher than the building it is helping piece together. Gordon said most of that heavy lifting is complete.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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