HARLEM—The sound from the water and gas main break that opened up a massive sinkhole at St. Nicholas Avenue and 152nd Street Friday startled Lucy Mills, who was in her apartment more than a block away.
"It sounded like a loud boom boom boom. We thought it was an explosion or maybe a truck that crashed," said the retired Harlem Hospital worker.
But when she came outside and saw the giant sinkhole directly in front of the bus stop, she wasn't at all surprised.
"We have called over and over about that dip in the street," she said about the spot where the sinkhole developed. "We call, they half fix it, and it always comes back."
In fact, the city's 311 complaint system received more than a dozen calls about the intersection in 2010 and 2011, according to city records. The complaints started with a pothole at the intersection and progressed to cave-ins and failed street repairs.
Officials from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said Friday they had no record of dealing with problems at the intersection, but the Department of Transportation (DOT) called them out to the location at least once in the last year, according to city records.
The 12-inch water main dates to 1956, according to DEP. Officials also said Friday the water main break is what caused the gas main to crack. City officials have yet to determine the cause of the incident.
After several inspections, DOT referred the pothole laden corner to the DEP for inspections and later determined that the "street meets resurfacing standards" and would be put on the schedule "for either the next or future resurfacing seasons (2-3 years)," according to city records from April 2011.
The DOT did not respond to requests for comment. DEP officials also were unable to immediately respond to questions about the intersection.
It was around April that area residents took matters into their own hands and stuck a metal city trash can into the hole to warn motorists, according to filmmaker and Harlem resident Greg Whitmore, 35.
"They were always patching that hole," he said.
No additional complaints listed between the DOT's April recommendation and Friday's water and gas main breaks, which sent water gushing into the air and left the smell of gas hanging over the neighborhood as Con Ed and DEP worked to repair the gas and water lines.
In addition to creating a massive crater, the breaks left at least 5,000 people without gas. Some may not see their service restored for a week, according to Con Ed.
Councilman Robert Jackson said his office has no records of complaints about the intersection, but that he is interested in finding out the cause.
"It's obvious there were some issues here," said Jackson. "Maybe there was a leak. Who knows. If there was, they should have dealt with it before there was an explosion."
Mills, the retired Harlem Hospital worker who heard the collapse from her apartment a block away, thinks people simply got tired of complaining
"We felt the city did half a job when it came to this location," said Mills.
Gabriel Basbus, 37, who works for a health insurance company, stared at the giant sinkhole on his way home from work with his son. He said the failure to resolve whatever was causing the problem could have ended with people getting hurt.
"You always see the dips there and that bus stops there every day. If it was downtown they would have fixed it in a day. Up here, it take 50 years — or this," he said, gesturing to the sunken asphalt.