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Burst water pipe at school causes chaos in Alberton

By VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian

ALBERTON - On Jim Baldwin's first day on the job here as superintendent of schools six years ago, they told him his most important duty: Leave the door to the closet in his office open when it got cold outside.

Inside the closet is a pipe, originally an external connector for fire hoses, that rises out from the floor. About 20 years ago, during another cold snap, the pipe froze and broke inside the uninsulated closet.

Perhaps not exactly like clockwork, but close enough, the pipe froze and busted again Tuesday at about 3:30 p.m., even though after the accident 20 years ago they cut the pipe off inside the building and plugged it, and even though Baldwin had the closet door open and the pipe was wrapped in heat tape - heat tape that evidently wasn't functioning.

"I heard a 'psssh' sound, and knew what it was right away," said school secretary Anne Styles.

"The school was built back when insulation wasn't a hot item," Baldwin said. "There's no insulation in the closet, and the pipe sits right next to a concrete wall. The first thing they told me when I took the job was to leave that door open when it got cold. Which I've always done, but it didn't work this time."

Water sprayed all over for nearly six hours as school and town officials frantically tried to figure out where the shutoff valve was located. There is a shutoff valve for the school's water system, but this lone pipe is not a part of that.

"We were calling people, trying to find maps to the streets that would show where the shutoff valve was," said Gary Webber, Alberton's technical coordinator and a former superintendent himself. "The fellow in charge of city water is back in Wisconsin; we tracked him down but he didn't know. This was all built back in the mid-'60s."

Officials finally located the shutoff valve, half a block away and under the street. They brought in a backhoe, dug it up and got the water turned off at about 9:30 p.m.

"After that it was a matter of about 10 minutes to fix it," Webber said.

Although damage was mostly limited to Baldwin's office - including a hole cut in the wall early on to let the water, then 10 inches deep, escape out into a parking lot - Alberton canceled classes Wednesday.

Among other things, the spraying water took out the school's phone system, and cell phone service in the mountainside town is extremely limited. When Blackfoot Communications technician Paul Chesterton opened up the phone system control panels located in the closet to see if anything could be salvaged Wednesday, water poured out of them. And when Baldwin had made the decision to cancel classes about 7 p.m. the night before, the school was still 2 1/2 hours from locating the shutoff valve.

Although Baldwin's office is located in the high school, students in all grades got the day off.

"It just doesn't make sense to do it any other way in a system this size," Webber said.

Alberton has 204 children enrolled in grades K-12. The school planned to reopen Thursday.

"I'm now the proud owner of an ice skating rink," said Baldwin after the flood in his office rolled into the parking lot and froze.

He estimated damage at $5,000, and commended high school principal Carl Dehny for coming up with the idea for cutting the hole in the wall that kept the flood from growing deeper and spreading farther.

"We had good cooperation from the city and fire department," Baldwin added. "There were a lot of people out there working in 20-below weather to find that shutoff valve."

Like the last time the pipe burst 20 years ago, Baldwin said Alberton has plans to try to keep it from happening again.

"I think we'll look at a little insulation for that closet," he said.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 523-5260 or at

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