The University Bridge will remain closed at least through Thursday evening's commute after a street south of the bridge collapsed this morning...

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The University Bridge will remain closed at least through Thursday evening’s commute after a street south of the bridge collapsed this morning when a large water main broke and sent two cars into a sinkhole.

Gregg Hirakawa, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said the bridge will stay closed as workers try to remove the two cars. It has proven difficult because there isn’t enough room under the bridge to get a tow truck to the vehicles. A backhoe was brought in to try to extract the vehicles.

The bridge was closed around 7:45 a.m., disrupting the morning commute and forcing Metro Transit to reroute buses. The bridge won’t re-open until 9 p.m. Thursday at the earliest, officials said Wednesday evening.

No one was injured as a result of the pipe break and the sinkhole.

The 24-inch-diameter water main gave way just a week after road workers broke a water main on Dexter Avenue in the South Lake Union neighborhood, although this latest break was not related to construction.

Today’s break is along Portage Bay Place East, a small road that provides access to floating homes below the bridge.

Thirty customers on Northeast Boat Street were without water as result of the break, and a handful in other areas nearby were also without water, said Joe Mickelson with Seattle Public Utilities.

The city is giving them bottled water, he said.

This water main, a major pipe in the city’s water system, goes from the Volunteer Park reservoir to the Maple Leaf neighborhood, Mickelson said.

The city found out about the break in a call from someone in Broadmoor complaining about low pressure, Mickelson said.

He said the city has a low “leak rate,” with only eight leaks a month.

The pipe that broke was installed in 1912, Mickelson said. The oldest pipe in the system was installed in 1898.

He said the break may have been the result of a flaw in the pipe that finally gave way. It’s going to be difficult to replace because it’s under the bridge and has a bend in it, he said.

John Hutchins, with Harbor Consulting Company, inspected the pipe today and said, “My best guess, it was an old pipe and it just washed out and broke.”

The two vehicles that fell into the sinkhole are owned by employees of the Red Robin restaurant at the south end of the bridge, according to a manager of the eatery. The restaurant closed for the day.

The owner of one vehicle, Jorge Maya, an assistant kitchen manager, said he tried to move his van and couldn’t after the break occurred — the road collapsed, taking his van with it.

He said he jumped out and got soaked by the water gushing from the pipe. He estimated the sinkhole to be 15 feet deep.

“It was scary,” he said.

Maya went back into Red Robin and told Alejandro Medina, a cook, that his car was also under water.

One of the cars is resting on a natural-gas line. And while there is no evidence of leaking gas, Puget Sound Energy was sending crews to inspect the area.

Several boats in the area were moved as a safety precaution.

After a preliminary inspection of the bridge, engineers believe there is no imminent safety problem such as the structure shifting, said Hirakawa. The pilings are “driven fairly deeply,” perhaps 50 to 60 feet, he said.

However, he said rushing water undermined some soil that supports the approach roadway on the southern shore — where a huge slab of concrete sits atop the ground.

He also said underwater cameras were used today to inspect the footings of the bridge. While there was some undermining of the foundation, he doesn’t yet know how deep the problems are.

The draw span opened shortly before 11 a.m. and will continue to operate to let boats through, said Hirakawa.

The University Bridge was built in 1919 and rebuilt in 1933, according to, and the book “Spanning Washington,” by Rick Hobbs. The bridge has been earmarked for improvements as part of the “Bridging the Gap” program approved by voters and the City Council last year.

Each day, 31,400 cars cross the bridge, according to the Transportation Department.

Wendy Freitag, who lives in a houseboat on Portage Bay near where the break occurred, said she noticed her water was discolored yesterday.

“These things happen. For those of us who live here, it’s part of what we expect.”

A woman who lives on Fuhrman Avenue East said she tried to take a shower this morning and the water pressure was only 50 percent of normal. When she tried to make coffee, she found her tap water was murky.

Routine life was unexpectedly interrupted this morning for residents on Portage Bay Place East, many of whom live on houseboats.

With their road closed, their cars are trapped, leaving them no way out but to walk up a long flight of stairs to Fuhrman Avenue East. Losing their water supply was the other big concern.

But a can-do spirit prevailed.

Phil Ballard, a retired physician, was heading back home from rowing at nearby Pocock Rowing Center to drive his wife, Ledjie, to the airport. Needless to say, she missed her flight.

“I’ve actually been trying to store up as much water as I could,” said Ballard. “I noticed the flow was slowly going down. I think it’s going to be off here in a few seconds.”

Next, he was going to make a run to the nearest grocery to stock up on supplies.

At the Canal Market on Fuhrman Avenue East, about two blocks from the water-main break, owner Tony Tong still had running water, but barely any time to answer the phone because so many of his neighbors were coming in for bottled water and food.

“Right now I am so busy,” he said. “A lot of people are waiting for me.”

Another houseboat resident, Ed Brighton, lives about 200 yards from where the soil was washed out under the road. “Whether or not the road is washed out is our main concern, and whether we’re going to lose our water,” he said.

Brighton said probably a hundred cars are parked on the street. It would help if the bridge was opened up, he said, because a lot of residents work at the University of Washington and could at least walk across. Another way would be to row over, he said.

Folks on houseboats are probably in better shape than the few who live in houses nearby, he said. At least the houseboat residents can throw a bucket over the side and fill it up with water to flush the toilet.

Architect Fred Bassetti and his wife, Gwen Bassetti, had just loaded up the car for a trip to their farm in Eastern Washington. “We’re trying to regroup here,” said Gwen, who had “a dribble of water” from the tap at midmorning. Their car is among those trapped by the road closure.

As an alternative, they might borrow a car and carry all their stuff up the 62 stairs to Fuhrman Avenue East.

“We have a puppy and two cats. It’ll be good for us,” said Bassetti.

Mayor Greg Nickels was on his way to work when he got a phone call about the break; he went directly to the site. Nickels said he didn’t think this incident would affect Opening Day of boating season Saturday.

Seattle Times staff reporter Marsha King contributed to this report.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or