OTTAWA — A cavernous sinkhole suddenly opened up Wednesday near a busy downtown intersection just blocks from Parliament Hill, swallowing a minivan, paralyzing traffic and halting efforts to build a long-awaited underground transitway.
No one appeared to be hurt as the roadway collapsed, even as cellphone footage aired on CBC showed a black minivan suddenly vanishing from its parking spot in front of a bookstore across the street.
“At this point, we do not have any record of any injuries or missing persons,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told a hastily arranged news conference with city and transit officials.
Police said they started receiving 911 calls at mid-morning and officers were rushed to the scene to keep people away as torrents of water from a broken water main began filling the hole.
As the cave-in widened, natural gas lines ruptured, forcing the evacuation of nearby buildings including a major shopping mall and a hotel where hundreds of people were attending a conference, officials said
“The lights went out and then the alarms started ringing,” said one man who was told to leave the shopping centre.
“It was pretty scary,” said the man, a visitor from Halifax who asked not to be identified.
The road itself had already been limited to bus and taxi traffic only since last summer due to construction of an underground light rail transit line and work above ground on a subway entranceway.
City officials and the construction company working on the LRT line knew of soft soil conditions in the area, said Steve Cripps, director of the city’s rail implementation office.
“Certainly, the city has been aware … for a number of years about the soil conditions in that area, and they have taken extensive precautions to deal with the soil in that area,” Cripps said.
The city has launched an investigation into the collapse, and Mayor Watson assured residents the roadway would be rebuilt as quickly as possible, although he could not say how long that might take.
“The public can continue to be reassured that we’re putting all of our resources towards determining the cause of the situation, and to conduct the necessary repairs as quickly as possible,” he said.
Just hours after the hole formed, the city had already contacted insurance adjusters to conduct their own investigation, said officials.
The road collapse comes three weeks before a major North American leaders’ summit, which was already expected to add to the city’s traffic headaches. Police say they would re-route out-of-town visitors for the gathering if necessary.
“It’s too early to tell exactly what the impact will be on the traffic patterns for any motorcades,” said Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau.
“We’ll continue to work closely with the city to see exactly how long it will take to remediate the scene and then if we have to make any adjustments to any motorcade routes we will do so.”
It was the second sinkhole to open up in Ottawa’s downtown in recent years.
In 2014, another road just a few blocks away collapsed. Officials blamed it on unexpected soil conditions encountered during a tunnelling operation for the same light-rail transit line.