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Water Main Break Shuts Down Streets On Edge Of Chinatown

BOSTON (CBS) – A water main break shut down some streets, briefly left several people without water, and left manhole fires and building evacuations in its wake in downtown Boston Wednesday.

After noon, crews that had been making progress in clearing the mess had to order pedestrians back from the scene after toxic smoke began billowing from underground on Kneeland Street.

The trouble began around 5 a.m. Wednesday with a water main break at the intersection of Washington and Kneeland Streets in the Theater District near Chinatown, according to Boston Water and Sewer.  The rush of water created a sinkhole in the pavement.

The water quickly filled the roads and poured into stores, restaurants, and an apartment building. The flooding left broken pavement and a muddy mess behind.

"It's gross and I've never seen it like this before, and it looks like a mess," said one person walking through the area.

water main break
On Washington Street, at the edge of Chinatown, there is a sinkhole where the water main broke. (Photo credit: Carl Stevens - WBZ NewsRadio 1030)

The City of Boston said that Washington Street between Essex and Oak Streets and Kneeland Street between Harrison Avenue and Stuart Street were temporarily closed.

They advised drivers to avoid Chinatown, since traffic on adjacent streets was backed up.

Chinatown Break
Firefighters spray a chemical to step manhole fires in Chinatown. (WBZ-TV)

One woman told WBZ-TV's Anna Meiler that the break changed her morning commute, causing her to be late to work.

"It's just a bizarre thing to see, it's like mud just erupted all over the city," she said.

Crews shut down two water mains, cutting off water to the neighborhood for a short period of time, until they determined the problem was with a 20-inch transmission main.

The headaches continued hours later when the power was turned back on and three manholes caught fire.

The foam that firefighters used to put out the manhole fires was still visible at the scene at noon.

The smoke caused increased levels of carbon monoxide that forced authorities to evacuate at least four buildings on Kneeland Street, including a hostel with 100 people inside.

Chinatown Break
Smoke rises from a manhole following a Chinatown water main break. (WBZ-TV)

Boston Fire Commissioner Joe Finn told WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Carl Stevens that the fires were under control, but it was still a messy situation.

"We have fire companies in each of these buildings monitoring the atmosphere for CO readings and any smoke migration from the transformers," he said.

It's not clear yet what caused the break.

The flood didn't stop a woman working at a Dunkin' Donuts from doing her job.

"The nice woman at Dunkin' Donuts took my card off the street and paid for my coffee inside the coffee store and brought me out my coffee," a woman said.

Inspectional Services commissioner William Christopher said a number of area businesses were affected, some of which had three to four feet of water inside.

"We're working with between 12 and 15 restaurants that are voluntarily closed," he said. "We've set up a center over at the Chinatown Main Streets in the China Trade building for anybody who wants to go over and get some help."

Boston water main break
The broken water main flooded a large part of Washington and LaGrange Streets. (WBZ-TV)

It was not yet clear how long those businesses would be closed, and neighbors worry it may take some time for things to return to normal.

"You need a boat down here now," another woman told Stevens.

The water main broke at the front door of the coffee and wine bar, Jaho. Michael Weiss is the co-owner. "This is definitely the first big bad and thing at time when we are getting our grove going and coming up on the holiday season," said Weiss.

He woke up early Wednesday morning to a frantic phone call. Four to five inches covered the floor and ruined bags of expensive coffee beans.

Jaho opened just 14 months ago. Weiss said he wanted to bring an environment that you usually only find in Europe.

"It's unfortunate we are dealing with something we have no control over," said Weiss. "I am hoping there is a silver lining."

Perhaps the silver lining is that the city is trying to repair the area ASAP. By evening, the main was repaired, and Eversource was finishing up their work. The city planned to then start paving the road and sidewalk.

The city said the break did not impact anyone's water supply.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said this is the second water main break in recent weeks downtown, and it likely won't be the last.

"Some of these pipes have been in the ground for decades. Maybe some even a century long," said Walsh. "Certainly that's something we're working on, but Boston's an old city."

WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Carl Stevens reports

WBZ-TV's Katie Brace contributed to this report.

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