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Leaking water adds to frigid misery along Larkin Ave. in Elgin

A crew Elgcity employees who normally work indoors doing things like fixing water meters brave 15-below-zero temps as they figure

A crew of Elgin city employees who normally work indoors doing things like fixing water meters brave 15-below-zero temps as they figure out what to do about a water main break next to the McDonald's restaurant on Larkin Avenue Monday morning. | Dave Gathman/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 8, 2014 6:20AM

ELGIN — Fifteen-below-zero temperatures make life painful and unpleasant.

Stiff winds aggravate that.

When you add the need to slosh around in water, the agony factor rises to a new level of magnitude. But that’s what a crew of Elgin Public Works employees — some of them unused to working outdoors even in sunny, pleasant weather — had to do Monday morning as the cold penetrated into the ground and broke open some water pipes, big and small.

About 9 a.m., five men had begun checking out why a steady stream of water was erupting from the sidewalk in front of a long-shuttered Chinese restaurant in the 1400 block of Larkin Avenue.

As brave morning motorists ordered Sausage McMuffins at the McDonald’s restaurant next door, and Larkin High School sat coldly empty across the street, the bubbling stream ran like a little waterfall over the snow at the sidewalk’s edge. It threatened to form a patch of ice across the westbound lanes of the bustling street artery.

As the rotating dispenser at the back of a city plow truck spread salt across the flooded pavement, a water department crew led by Fil Martinez decided that an underground water main must have broken.

Martinez climbed into one of the three panel trucks on the scene and called in to public works headquarters on his mobile phone. He learned that the people there would try to line up a private contractor to dig up the errant pipe and fix the leak.

Meanwhile, fellow employee John Shales had lifted the 80-pound iron cover off a manhole in front of a nearby apartment building. He inserted a rodlike “key” as tall as himself, topped by a double handle, and prepared to screw that end of the water main closed.

Martinez explained that before the leak would stop, they also would have to find and close a second valve on the opposite side of the break. That valve might be inside a manhole like the first one, he said, or it could be in a large Buffalo-box-style connection box just below ground level.

“I usually work in the water meter shop. But I’m filling in here for the regular guys who would do this because they have been out plowing snow all weekend,” Martinez explained.

“This cold is really brutal,” he added.

The key to avoiding frostbite, he advised, is “lots of heavy clothing, and getting back into the trucks to thaw out. You can only stand to stay out there for a few minutes at a time.”

Outside, the other guys had stretched cloth masks across their faces, exposing only their eyes.

Martinez said another leak from underground had been reported that morning outside a home along Washburn Street. But that seemed to be a broken service line leading from the water main to just one house, so it would have to wait until after the faster-flowing break threatening this major street was stopped.

Martinez said he may not have been driving a plow, but the snowstorm and cold snap also had interrupted his weekend, as he was called out to fix water pipe breaks on Sunday. He said one of those, along Cypress Square in the west-side Garden Quarter subdivision, was still flowing as of Monday morning.

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