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Major water main breaks, floods UCLA campus damaging historic Pauley Pavilion

When a water main broke on Sunset Blvd. just above the UCLA campus at 3:24 p.m. on July 29 north of UCLA no one realized that nearly 10 million gallons of water would flood the campus and streets before workers could shut it down.

City officials said the 36-inch, high-pressure water pipe was laid in 1921. It delivers water from a San Fernando Valley reservoir and predates the UCLA campus by eight years. Almost a century old, the main exploded creating a 15 foot hole which proceeded to become a deep sink-hole as afternoon passed into evening. Water raged from the broken main at the rate of 75,000 gallons per minute and looked like white water rapids aside a continuous geyser shooting almost three stories high.

By the time the water had been turned off, approximately 8 to 10 million gallons of water had flooded down Sunset into the UCLA campus. While some students rushed to rescue cars parked in underground parking lots before they were damaged, others quickly started taking selfies of people wading through shin-high water, torrenting water cascading down the Pauley Pavilion steps like a scene from "Titanic", and “surfers on boogie boards.” You can see some selfies on video.

The Los Angeles Fire Department moved quickly to stop potentially dangerous behaviors warning that even ankle-high water could cause someone to fall and be pulled by the water. “There’s a lot of rocks, debris, there’s dirt, there’s glass inside,” Captain Moore of the LAFD explained. “For someone to try to boogie board in this, it’s just going to be an asphalt bath.”

The LA City Fire swift-water rescue team was also on scene as evacuations of the two underground parking structures progressed. Those at the northern end of the campus and by Pauley Pavilion, under athletic fields, became scenes of frantic car owners. Campus engineers are concerned that the drains in the garages cannot deal with the large quantities of water that entered them and will need to assess their damage and soundness before allowing anyone to enter them to retrieve cars.

Just after 4:30 water began to leak inside UCLA’s famous basketball arena, Pauley Pavilion. By dusk at eight inches of water and debris covered the floorboards of the arena, newly renovated in 2012 at the cost of $132 million. Pauley Pavilion hosted the gymnastics competition of the 1980 Los Angeles Olympics and was the collegiate home of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Reggie Miller, Kevin Love and where basketball wizard, John Wooden, coached winning teams for 10 years. The statue of John Wooden was standing in about a foot of water by evening.

One student on the UCLA lacrosse field for summer sports camp talked about how frightening it became when the flood waters started to cross the field. "All of a sudden there's water rushing and we had to grab our things. We just started running and we were being chased by water," she said.

Then water began pouring into the parking structure under the lacrosse field and the track and field stadium. She saw several drivers try to move cars out of the way but wind up trapped by the fast-flowing water in the dip at the exit. She said that it only took five minutes for the water to cross the lacrosse field and enter the Drake track stadium.

Another student described it this way. “The water outside Pauley was about ankle deep and rushing down the stairs to the parking lot, resembling the portion of the Universal Studios tram ride where the flood occurs.”

UCLA student Quinn Halleck witnessed the water-main break as it initially erupted.

“I’m coming down the hill, I start to see the cement starting to peak,” Halleck described. “I kind of didn’t believe it at first, because I didn’t really know what was going on. And then, finally, I just see the water start pouring out, and cement started falling everywhere, so I of course got off my board and stopped going toward it, and really just kind of backed away from it.”

It’s uncertain whether the city’s aging water pipe system, damage due to earthquakes or pressure variances due to water rationing caused the main to break.