Emails describe injury, panic during toilet explosions at GSA

One hospitalized, one injured, 2,500 amused and frightened by killer commodes

The inside story has finally come out detailing the culprit responsible for a series of toilet explosions that injured two DHS employees last September, sending one to the hospital.

The General Services Administration (GSA) provided few details about the explosions at the time, saying only that two government employees had been injured during a building-wide malfunction that filled the plumbing system with abnormally high levels of air pressure.

The explanation covered the barest requirements of disclosure, but left the phenomenon of toilets exploding in a theoretically secure government building unexplained.

This week, under requirements of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by government gadfly Jason Smathers, the GSA had to release some of the emails from witnesses, maintenance staff responding to the explosions and the flood of snarkily humored emails circulated by employees both frightened and amused by the prospect of relieving themselves on an appliance that suddenly decided to strike back.

Even under requirements of FOIA, however, the GSA has refused to release 90 documents relating to the incident, claiming releasing them would violate the privacy of the employees involved.

Smathers is appealing, presumably pointing out that having being injured by a toilet that explodes while in use is as much violation as most people's privacy can take.

Even the release underplays the incident so dramatically (referring to it as 'a domestic water system incident) it's clear GSA officials are trying to avoid discussing toilet explosions even in theory, let alone in practical, personal terms used by employees in email warnings and discussions of the event.

The explanation, quoted below, is much less interesting than the emails about it, including one that admitted the sender was "scared to pee."

Hot-air pressure so high in DC it blows up toilets

The explanation is a bit of a letdown, though, if it's accurate, it's still so unusual even top plumbing experts told the Huffington Post they'd read of the potential danger but never seen anything close to what happened at the GSA.

Water distributed through the network of pipes in any city has to be artificially pressurized, often using compressed air, to keep it moving through narrow pipes for long distances, according to Huffington Post writer Steven Hoffer, who had the clearest explanation of anyone at the time.

When it's piped into a building that pressure has to be reduced using a series of valves or pumps. If the pressure-relief valves malfunction, the results can be unpleasant.

Under pressure, the flush valve on a toilet opens a pressure-relieving portal, reversing the direction most of us prefer a flush to work.

At worst, under any but the absolute worst-case scenarios, someone could get messy and wet, according to Huffington Post's experts.

At GSA, someone apparently turned on the manual control for the pumps that make sure water has enough pressure to make it up to all eight floors of the office building, which is on the corner of 7 th and D streets.

Leaving the pumps on let the pressure build until many pipes were filled with air under considerable pressure, pressure that caused at least two toilets to burst when they were flushed.

"At approximately 12:30 PM on 9/26/11 I was notified that there was an emergency in the 4071 Restroom and that someone had been injured," Supervisory Property Manager Chris Litsey wrote. "Upon arriving we found Nurse on site administering aid to the injured employee…it was apparent that the injury was caused by the fragment of a broken toilet bowl.

The upper portion of the bowl, where the water supply comes out was broken and the trap on the bottom was also broken. People on site told us the toiled 'exploded.'

We found that the waterlines to toilets in that restroom were dry and flushing the toilets created a loud and startling sound and also ejected the remaining water from the bowl.

…An air compressor was running, creating pressure in the domestic-water tank and may have contributed to this incident. This compressor was immediately turned off, pressure valves were opened to reduce the pressure in the tank and the tank was allowed to fill with water." Supervisory Property Manager Chris Litsey, incident report 8:44 a.m. Sept. 27, 2011.

Life lessons learned from exploding toilets:

If you're wondering what the IT angle is on all this, the incident and coverage of it bring up two important points: First, if you have a critically important, complex network of any kind, filled with any thing, that is working adequately, DO NOT TOUCH IT. If it works right now you will not make it work better. You will break it. In fact, if it works now, it is waiting for you to mess with something so it can collapse dramatically, with catastrophic consequences. Since the network and content in it are both inanimate, that superstition makes no sense. That doesn't matter. It's true. Ask any network admin, plumber or DIY mechanic: try to improve something when nothing much is wrong and whatever you're trying to fix will punish you for bothering it. Mark my words.

In this case someone figured the water system needed a little extra jolt to get the water moving or blast away air bubbles blocking up a pipe. Then they forgot to turn the pumps back off again.

Second, no hugely incriminating details have come out in any of the FOIA documents yet, but all the documents involved are email messages, not financial reports or contracts or any of the other material people usually think of when they talk about documentary evidence that will show up in court during lawsuits or which has to be handled according to strict protocol governed by a corporate compliance officer.

All of the emails were legitimate targets for the FOIA request; they were sent by government employees using government systems, talking about an incident involving government employees in a government building being injured by flying shards of government toilet.

Even if you work at a private company, the same emails, IMs and other documents are fair game for e-discovery efforts by opposing counsel – meaning lawyers for the people that are suing your company get to sift through sometimes gigabytes of email looking for evidence proving who blew up the toilet and why.

Just something to think about in case someone walks in and wonders whether it's the best use of your time to be clicking around looking for more juicy details about the whole exploding-government-toilet situation. Yes. It is a good use of your time, and not only in case you have to defend yourself against homicidal plumbing.

Everything's relevant, even exploding toilets, if you look at it right.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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