Camille Garcia / Rivard Report
San Antonio Water System (SAWS) crews were still working Tuesday to remove and transfer water from a large sinkhole that claimed the life of part-time Bexar County sheriff's Deputy Doralinda Nishihara on Sunday.
Utility officials said they hope to get close enough to the ruptured sewer pipes to determine the exact cause of the incident by the end of the week, but it could take longer. The sinkhole ruptured at the convergence of an older pipe and newer pipe on the southwest side at 8414 Quintana Rd.
The new pipe was installed more than one year ago. The area is part of a larger, 18-month construction project that includes replacement of sewage pipe north of the sinkhole.
Those sewage pipes service all of western Bexar County, SAWS officials told the Rivard Report. It's impossible to know what caused the collapse, they said, until all sewage is removed and redirected away from the hole. Crews will build an above-ground pipe to carry the water over the sinkhole and into a manhole down the road.
Then they'll have to wait for the soil to dry to examine the site.
"Somehow, a pipe got separated," said SAWS COO and Senior Vice President Steve Clouse. Heavy downpours over the weekend penetrated the pipe.
Sewage pipes are stabilized with sand. When a pipe gets separated, Clouse said, that sand starts falling underneath it, away from the surface.
"This kept going on until there was a void underground and then (the surface) fell under," he said, "but what caused all that, we don't know."
SAWS crews are working now to secure the site by putting up fencing around the hole, which contains swift-moving water and large pieces of asphalt inside, to protect it from adjacent railroad tracks.
The mobilization effort will likely take another day or two, and bypassing the water could take anywhere from 2-3 weeks, said SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente.
Nishihara worked as a reserve deputy starting in August 2009 before transitioning to a part time position as a deputy at the Bexar County Courthouse in October 2016, according to County officials.
Mayor Ivy Taylor, who released a statement Monday about the tragedy, said she was saddened to hear about the death of Nishihara who lived near Taylor's home on the near-Eastside.
"She had also befriended my husband Rodney several years ago and would often stop and talk to him outside our home. Rodney most recently saw her about six weeks ago and she shared news about her part-time position with the sheriff’s office," Taylor stated. "My entire family extends their condolences to Nishihara’s family, friends and colleagues. We are also very grateful for her service to our community and our neighborhood."
The sheriff's office is working "very closely" with Nishihara's family to prepare a memorial service and funeral arrangements, sheriff's spokeswoman Roseanne Hughes said.
"We’ve got almost 2,000 employees in the sheriff's office and it's like a family," Hughes said, "so this is a huge shock and a very sad thing for our agency to have lost her."
The San Antonio Fire Department (SAFD) received a call at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday night for a water rescue, SAFD spokesman Woody Woodward told the Rivard Report Tuesday. When they arrived, a passerby had already brought a man out of the sinkhole as his vehicle was being submerged. Both sustained minor injuries and were transported to a hospital for treatment.
The cavity – which was about 12-14 feet deep – continued to grow, Woodward said, with water rising and moving quickly inside. Portions of asphalt broke off into the hole. Firefighters then noticed Nishihara's vehicle submerged.
"At that time (SAFD) determined, with members of SAWS, that the second vehicle was too deep under water to sustain life and the situation was too hazardous to try to go in and get the car out" in the dark of night, Woodward said. Rescue crews went back to the scene Monday morning and, with a large crane, retrieved Nishihara's vehicle, where she was found dead inside.
Along with Nishihara's family, San Antonio and the County – including County Commissioners who observed a moment of silence for her Tuesday morning before beginning their biweekly meeting – continue to mourn her tragic death.
The situation, however, signals deeper concerns for infrastructure issues that could pose serious threats for a quickly growing San Antonio. Many, including Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), are looking forward to identifying and remedying those potential hazards.
"We must identify the origins of the problem that caused (Sunday's) sinkhole incident," Saldaña stated in a news release. "The City, in conjunction with the San Antonio Water System will find answers that are not yet clear today.”