Editor’s Note: This story by John Lippman first appeared in the Valley News on Aug. 17.
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Retail businesses, restaurants and office tenants — including the Windsor County prosecutor — found themselves shut out of their spaces in the Gates Briggs Building following a “catastrophic failure” of the sprinkler system, which flooded the basement with more than 3 feet of water, town officials and the building’s owner said on Tuesday.
The tenants may not be able to regain access until the end of this week or early next, and the restaurants could be closed even longer, the latest setback for downtown merchants who have endured years of disruptions to their business from the pandemic, a shortage of workers and the town’s infrastructure work that has torn up the street and kicked up dirt and dust outside their doorstep.
“We have a fighting chance for the end of Saturday or end of Monday,” predicted David Briggs, whose family owns the landmark Gates Briggs Building and adjacent Hotel Coolidge building in the heart of White River Junction village.
He said Tuckerbox suffered a more severe blow because the flooding damaged the restaurant’s cold storage units.
Briggs said the cascade of events began when a water line that fed the basement’s sprinkler system “blew apart” on Monday afternoon, triggering alarms and streaming water into the basement that became waist-deep within hours. Hartford public works and fire department crews responded, eventually locating the shutoff valve with a metal detector beneath a newly paved North Main Street.
But while all parties — tenants, owner and town officials — said they are fortunate that no one got hurt, the now-drained basement flood has left behind a several-inch-thick layer of mud and silt that will require costly cleanup, in addition to extensive repair of the basement sprinkler system and electrical wiring. (All electricity to the building has been cut, rendering business and offices uninhabitable, officials said).
On Tuesday, Hartford town officials from the fire department and public works department were assessing the damage to the building, home of the Briggs Opera House on the second floor and shops, businesses and two restaurants.
Describing it as a “water-related incident,” Hartford fire inspector Tom Peltier said the building could not reopen until it had passed through a series of tests, including a state electrical inspection, a structural integrity inspection and a “fire and life” inspection. He was unwilling to predict how long any of those steps might take.
“We’re just getting the wheels in motion. One piece has to go to get the next piece to go. We got people looking over and evaluating on each side,” Peltier said Tuesday afternoon. “It just needs to all come together before we can determine occupancy status.”
Cheryl Heath, mother of Tuckerbox owner Jackie Oktay, was at her daughter’s and son-in-law Vural Oktay’s home on Monday evening “taking care of the animals” while the Oktays are away on vacation when two cooks from the restaurant unexpectedly appeared with distressing news: The basement of the Oktays’ restaurant had flooded and authorities ordered everyone to leave the building out of safety concerns.
“I got down here in 10 minutes,” Heath said Tuesday morning, standing in the alley behind Tuckerbox with others who had gathered to learn the extent of the damage.
When Heath peered down into the blackness of the restaurant’s basement, she discovered “the water level covered the last two steps” of the stairs, she said, sharing photos that showed boxes floating in the murky, muddy water. She said the basement is where the restaurant stores food and where Jackie Oktay has her office.
“Fortunately, the restaurant is closed Mondays,” Heath said.
She was able to contact the manager, who in turn called Tuckerbox employees and reservation holders to tell them the restaurant would be closed, and they didn’t have any information when it would be able to reopen.
Meanwhile, Hartford town officials were assessing the damage sustained to the building throughout the day. Although the flooding was confined to the basement, officials had to cut off electric power to the building, making flashlights necessary to navigate inside and likely complicating powering machines for the cleanup effort.
Given the summer-long public works project that includes excavation to replace water and sewer lines that run under South Main Street, tenants wondered on Tuesday whether the infrastructure work contributed to damaging the water main that resulted in the flooding.
But Interim Public Works director Jeremy Delisle on Tuesday discounted that possibility, saying he didn’t see evidence for it.
“You have old systems out there. It doesn’t look like the water system had been ‘hammered’ at all,” Delisle said, referring to a build up or sudden release in water pressure that typically are associated with such leaks. “I just think this is a very unfortunate event with timing and the construction. As far as I can see, there’s nothing jumping right out to show the cause of it.”
Delisle said that although inspection crews are not entirely sure of the origin of the problem, “it appears that everything (that happened) was in the building.”
In Hartford, building owners are responsible for the water line between the building and the shutoff valve, while the town is responsible for water line from the shutoff valve to the main, Delisle explained.
“We shut the valve off, and the water leak stopped,” he said.
In the case of the Gates Briggs Building, the valve is located under North Main Street. That complicated things further because North Main Street had recently been repaved and the spot where the shut-off valve is located had not yet been marked, forcing work crews to use a metal detector to find its location, Delisle said.
Briggs, however, said he is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the cause of sprinkler system failure.
“I’m sure it will be looked into,” he said, noting that the sprinkler system “works a little different. It’s an extension of the town system, not passing through a valve or a meter or anything that we control and is intended to be uninhibited because you want that water there when you need it.”
Kim Souza, a Hartford Selectboard member and owner of the vintage apparel store Revolution in the Gates Briggs Building, said she was in a Selectboard meeting Monday night when town manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis texted to tell Souza that a “water main break” had flooded the basement of the building.
Souza was stuck in the meeting and didn’t get to the scene until 10 p.m., where she met up with the fire chief and building’s maintenance person. Together they shown flashlights into the basement where Souza said the water level was about eight inches, “not as bad as other parts of the building.” She said she has business loss insurance, but “the deductible is high.”
Luckily, Souza said, she was spared from loss of inventory because last weekend she had Revolution’s summer sale and “hauled thousands of pounds” of apparel out of the basement.
Confronting the mud-caked basement the next morning, she said, was “discouraging” but “this is life in an old building.”
Besides, Souza noted, flooding often leaves other unpleasant residue in its wake and they were spared that, too.
“It didn’t smell like septic, so that was encouraging,” she said.
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