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Realizing Pipe Dreams

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fat, tough and heavy, the big pipes roll into Simi Valley just before 10 a.m. Thursday aboard a flatbed semi.

By nightfall, they are welded into place.

By this morning, the repaired pipeline could be ready to carry water again through the west-end neighborhood that was flooded Saturday when a giant water main exploded like overstuffed manicotti.

And in between lie a hundred feats of rough craft and precision engineering, and the dozen-odd men who transform blueprints into infrastructure.

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The coarse hands of roustabouts and welders, crane operators and foremen are restoring a water pipeline 5 1/2 feet wide that was damaged in the Northridge earthquake and blown out during an apparent power failure six days ago.

The job--scheduled to finish in two weeks when the pipe is finally buried under a fresh layer of asphalt on Madera Road--begins on a blueprint stuffed into Larry DeBellis’ back pocket.

This is the job’s bible.

Sharp blue sketches show where the pipes go, how they sit and what binds them tightly enough to carry water pressure at 120 pounds per square inch toward Bard Reservoir and customers to the west.

Emergency repair jobs like these are “kind of tense,” says DeBellis, superintendent for CalFon Engineering & Construction, which the Calleguas Municipal Water District hired to mend the pipe at an estimated cost of $100,000.

He shouts over the whine of heavy machinery dieseling nearby. “But once you get over the tension and get your schedule down, it’s--well, I won’t say it’s fun--but it is good,” DeBellis says. “I do enjoy it, to tell you the truth. . . . It’s something different every day. You’re never on a project too long.”

CalFon crews hoisted out the burst pipe Wednesday.

Shattered by a sudden “water hammer” of nearly 500 pounds per square inch in a pumping mishap, it bore a ragged 10-by-3-foot tear edged with torn steel cable and concrete chunks, notes Randy Breault, Calleguas’ project manager.

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“It’s impressive when they go,” Breault says. “Anything under pressure, when it relieves itself, it’s destructive. That’s for sure.”

By Thursday morning, crews finish widening the trench.

They lay down a gravel floor. Flatten it with a clattering, shaking earth compactor. And set up wood blocks to support the pipes.

Ron Hill drives a big, yellow Offshore Crane rig onto the site. He hooks up a sling under the first 10-foot, 3,000-pound section of new steel pipe.

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There is a minor scare when the pipes briefly look too wide for the job. Calleguas and CalFon workers scurry around with long tape measures and deep frowns, measuring, double-checking.

The pipes might have deformed in transit--their own weight making them bulge at the sides, the workers figure. So they agree to try dropping them into place.

“Try it,” Breault tells the workers. “I like that approach. Get it in the hole and see if it fits.” It fits perfectly.

Gum-chewing crane operator John Beesley delicately tweaks the long control levers on the 45-ton capacity crane. He lifts the pipe skyward, then lowers it toward the trench, while Hill nudges it with gloved hands.

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It is 11:15.

The pipe spins ponderously in its sling, an elephantine ballet over the hard-hatted workers below.

“You just keep the load from swinging,” says Beesley, a 20-year union crane operator with an easy grin and a love for the work. “You’ve got to compensate for any movement. If it starts to swing, you follow it with your boom and keep the [tension] under it. This [project] is a real basic, simple job.”

CalFon foreman Carl Dannaman signals Beesley and Hill with quick hand gestures. Downward thumb, lower, lower, lower. Fingertips waved away back, back. Clenched fist, stop.

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CalFon hard hats muscle the steel tube into place, fitting its open end onto the protruding lip of the older concrete pipe. Dannaman juts his thumb downward again, and Beesley eases the pipe down onto the wood blocks.

With spirit level and plumb line, Dannaman checks the pipe’s alignment, then signals the welders to move in.

As the sling is unhooked and hoisted clear, Andy Reckers walks into the pipe and clamps a ground wire to it.

With a nod, Reckers drops his thick facemask into place and touches his welding rod to the pipe, striking a brilliant blue arc. Raw power fuses the old pipe edges with the new, showering the high collar of his burn-pocked leather jacket with hot sparks.

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Tapping a spent rod from the clamp and fitting a new one every 60 seconds or so, he works swiftly.

Within an hour, Reckers has laid down the first layer of what will be three welds for each joint, clearing the way for welders Cal King and Duane Stansbery to follow.

As the men work, the crane hoists another 10-foot pipe into the opposite end of the trench, then lowers semicircular “butt straps” underneath the open ends of the new pipes to bind them together.

Reckers welds the straps into place, grinding them clean to make way for the last 20-foot section of pipe.

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“Piece of cake, man,” Reckers says during a 90-second break to get something out of his eye. “Piece of cake.” Then he scrambles back into the trench and attacks the pipe again with a fresh welding rod.

By 4 p.m., the final pipe section is lowered into place, and the three welders are inside, welding themselves into the water main. They work on into the night in a noxious cloud of fumes and sparks, planning to knock off around 10 p.m. and emerge through a nearby manhole.

Meanwhile, CalFon workers prepared to build concrete forms for a support cradle beneath the welded pipe.

And today, cement mixing trucks are due to arrive at the site and pour tons of concrete into the forms.

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As next week wears on, workers will wrap the pipe in wire mesh, pump a coating of cement onto it, and surround it with layers of slurry, rock, dirt and asphalt to act as the new roadbed.

Then they must repeat the process on a short, 10-foot section of pipe farther up the line near Wood Ranch.

That is where a geotechnical contractor accidentally drilled through the water main and forced Calleguas to shut the valve that blocked the line Saturday.

And that is what Calleguas officials say left the system vulnerable to the 8 million gallons of water from branch lines that suddenly dumped into the main pipeline during a power failure and blew a hole in it.

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Workers will also patch some fractured pipe joints that engineers found by sending a robot camera tractor up the line via remote control, Breault says. But that work should go quickly.

He nods at the block wall that barely separates the busy trench from an otherwise quiet neighborhood to the west.

“These people will be happy to see us out of here, I’m sure,” Breault says.

Then he hunkers down again with the other foremen, returning to the dust, the racket, the work.

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