MONTREAL -- A massive sinkhole swallowed a backhoe in downtown Montreal on Monday morning as a construction crew was preparing to repair a leaking water main that runs underneath Ste. Catherine St. at the corner of Guy St.

Around 9:30 a.m. a backhoe was in place and starting to dig through the asphalt when the ground gave way.

“All of a sudden we saw from far that the whole street just caved in, and we could see the top of the tractor,” said witness Christine Komorowski. “It was unbelievable.”

The backhoe twisted as it fell, dropping into a hole slightly larger than the heavy construction equipment.

It does not appear the backhoe's operator suffered any serious physical injuries in the fall, but he was taken to hospital to be treated for shock.

Because the street was already closed for the construction project nobody else was close enough to be hurt.


Water leaking for weeks

Rahman Esmaela, owner of Sharks Bar at that street corner, said water has been leaking into the basement of his establishment for the past week. Esmaela said he felt ignored by the city when he reported the problem.

"Since a week or ten days ago, water has been leaking all over the pool hall and the basement in the parking lot," Esmaela said.

"We contacted the city many times, through the building and through our insurance, but the city ignored us, saying, we have no collection of any water coming from this and they didn't bother coming and check it.”

A spokesperson for the city of Montreal could not say exactly when the city of Montreal became aware of the problem, stating only that construction crews were scheduled to examine the water main at 9 a.m.

City Councillor Richard Deschamps later said that inspectors had surveyed the area within the past week.

“It seems that there were people sent but they didn't discover anything at that time,” said Montreal executive committee member Richard Deschamps.

Following another prompt about the issue, an inspector returned at midnight Sunday night to scope the problem. That’s when a construction crew was ordered to excavate and explore the area.

Several hours after the backhoe fell into the sinkhole city inspectors arrived to determine the extent of the ground that was washed away, and how long it will take to repair.


Same block affected in January

Sinkholes and broken water mains in Montreal are a frequent occurrence, although rarely are they this large.

In February the same block of Ste. Catherine St., between St. Mathieu St. and Guy St., was closed for two weeks as crews repaired a brick sewer built in 1885.

That job became more complicated because when workers excavated the sewer they found a gap just a few metres away, where there should have been a functioning water main.

Concordia University civil engineering professor Dr. Adel Hanna said he thinks the ground underneath the road was weakened after being exposed to too much water.

“What I suspect is it was a kind of, repair but the repair was either not done properly or incomplete,” he said.

The city of Montreal says the first priority is securing the intersection and making sure the streets are safe. No word yet on when this stretch of Ste. Catherine will reopen.

Last summer several arterial streets, including Ste. Catherine St. near McGill College Ave., two sections of Peel St., and part of Sherbrooke St., were closed for emergency repairs because water had washed away substantial amounts of the roadbed.

In one case, a 24-square-metre section of asphalt was help up solely tramway tracks.