Basalt apartment complex suffered ‘millions of dollars of damage’ when water pipe broke, collapsed

Snowmass Fire Marshal John Mele, right, assessing the damage from the fallen pipe at the Roaring Fork Apartments in Basalt on Wednesday afternoon.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

The rupture and collapse of a water pipe for the fire-suppression system Tuesday at a Basalt apartment complex resulted in “millions of dollars of damage,” Basalt-Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson said Wednesday.

Firefighters remained at the Roaring Fork Apartments at 111 Emma Road on Wednesday to make sure insurance officials for building owner RealAmerica LLC and the fire-suppression system installer could inspect the site safely, Thompson said.

Once the insurance companies had their opportunities, the site would be turned over to RealAmerica to begin repairing the damage, he said.

A 6-inch diameter water main fell from the first-floor ceiling to the floor at about noon Tuesday. An estimated 168 linear feet of pipe fell, Thompson said. The cause remained under investigation Wednesday by John Mele, fire marshal for the Basalt-Snowmass Village departments.

Thompson said he and Mele had never seen anything like Tuesday’s accident in about 70 years of experience in firefighting between them.

“There’s a lot going on here,” Thompson said. “There was a lot pulled down from the ceiling.”

He confirmed that a fire-suppression installation team was at the building Tuesday morning to work on a “minor leak” in the system on the fourth floor. He said investigators weren’t automatically making a connection between that work and the problem with the first-floor pipe. Other factors could have produced a “water hammer” effect, where pressure surges in water lines, he said.

The investigation also is focused on why the pipe collapsed. Thompson said he couldn’t answer if the pipe burst in the ceiling and then collapsed, or if it broke free from hangers in a domino effect and then broke.

He said the department would use the incident as a learning experience in future inspections of how water lines are secured, though he stressed it isn’t known yet if there was a flaw in the arrangement.

The 56-unit Roaring Fork Apartments opened in June. The Fire Marshal’s Office and the town of Basalt building department inspected the building before it received its certificate of occupancy.

Town, Fire Department and RealAmerica officials are working on a plan to reopen as much of the building as possible, and as quickly as possible. None of the apartment units in the upper three stories were damaged, Thompson said, but safety concerns remain.

The upper-floor apartments could potentially be occupied before the fire-suppression system is back online if smoke detectors are operable in every unit and there is a security guard patrolling the premises at night, according to Thompson.

Getting the ground-floor units back in commission will be a bigger challenge. They were flooded with up to 6 inches of water. Sheetrock will have to be replaced, Thompson said, and a full systems analysis performed.

“They’re going to do structural engineering and electrical engineering,” he said.

Thompson stressed that RealAmerica and its insurer were “receptive to our demands and needs” and “good to work with.” Safety of tenants is the top concern of all of them, he said.

Indianapolis-based RealAmerica sent a construction team to Aspen on a red-eye flight Tuesday night, according to Bridget Slaughter, marketing manager for the company. Company officials met with tenants Wednesday night to gauge their needs and outline plans for getting the building fixed.

There are 77 tenants at Roaring Fork Apartments, with 13 apartments on the first floor, Slaughter said. There are 10 people in need of replacement. The other tenants have family or friends they are able to stay with, she said.

“We are working with those 10 people to make sure they have a roof over their heads,” Slaughter said.

Tenant Hannah Faison was displaced from her second-floor apartment. She had renter’s insurance so she is staying at an area hotel. Fortunately, she said, her dog was with friends at the time of the incident so he didn’t go through the trauma of the alarm system blaring and the emergency response effort.

She was able to briefly enter her apartment to retrieve some personal items. One concern for tenants is the thawing of food in the freezers and refrigerators.

“I don’t even want to think about what that will smell like,” Faison said.

On the brighter side, she said she’s been impressed by the offers of people to help — from first responders, RealAmerica, the Aspen Animal Shelter and Basalt High School for setting up a shelter and the Red Cross.

“It’s one more reason why you love this community,” she said.