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2000 Personal Accounts
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2000 Personal Account

(1998) I was working on an East London construction site that was being converted from a school into private flats. The first phase had been completed, and one third of the school had been turned into flats which were now occupied.

The builders were working on the middle third of the school, and needed to remove a large slab of concrete which had formed the top landing of the central grand staircase. They decided that the best way to do this was to remove most of the slab supports, wait for all the flat occupants to go to work, clear the contractors, and remove the remaining supports, allowing the slab to drop directly to the basement.

The big day arrived. The main contractor checked to see that all of the cars had left for work, and he removed the manhole covers from the basement level. This was to spare the site and surrounding houses from the dust created by the downdraft of the slab dropping several floors, dissipating it into the sewers instead.

All non-essential contractors, including me, were told to stand clear. Laborers knocked on the flat doors to ensure that no residents were at home. The order was given, and like clockwork the slab crashed thunderously into the basement.

The main contractor expressed his relief and glee at the smooth operation, the planning, and its total success.

A few moments later, a gentleman in a soaking wet and stained dressing gown approached and began to remonstrate with him. He had stayed home that day with a case of diarrhea, and was perched on his toilet, which happened to be just on the other side of the wall where the slab descended.

At this point, please recall that the manhole covers were open, and the slab as expected had acted like an enormous bicycle pump and blasted air into the sewers as it fell. Sewers which were attached to this poor man's toilet drainpipe.

The water and its turgid contents were launched skywards in an arc described as a "fount of cess" by the man in the dressing gown, who was drenched with the contents.

I believe it did not go to court, as the man was married and his female secretary had taken his car to work.

 

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Submitted by: Alan Taylor


Rebuttal from Dave:
This must be an urban legend. Otherwise all of the toilets in all of the flats would have done the exact same thing.

Rebuttal from Paul L. Tomlinson:
It is entirely possible for this to have occured just as described, as the blast would not have travelled through all the toilets. The "Valveless Flush Toilet," invented by Thomas Crapper (from whom it takes its colloquial name) uses simple gravity and water pressure for it's functionality. This system works against back pressure on the singular condition that one does not flush while the incoming pressure of the sewage line is greater than the outgoing sewage. This principle became extremely well known in Seattle, Washington, where Mr. Crapper's invention became very popular. A sewage line was built, from wood of all things, and employed gravity in expediting waste to the ocean. The city is built on a hill by the coast of the Puget Sound, perfect for the gravity-flow system. The plan worked wonderfully at it's unveiling... until they realized that the tide which wisked away the unwanted matter so wonderfully would also bring it back, resulting in a prolonged stench. High tides would also cover the sewer's outlet, creating an instant back pressure as all the raw sewage built up behind it. For this reason, citizens of Seattle made it a habit to post a copy of the tide tables on the interior doors of the lavatory for reference to help them decide whether to flush. If the tide table were not adhered to, a literal "fountain of cess" would ensue, as the mounting city sewage pushed it's way through your own plumbing. Had the individual in this story been flushing at that precise moment, the result would indeed be as stated.

Rebuttal from Max:
For this illustration, totally ignore the above-floor part of the toilet. If you remove the toilet, you will see a pipe with a P trap, a section of pipe that goes down, curves up, and curves back down again. It looks like a sideways S. You can also find a P trap under your sink. It traps a plug of water in the bottom of the curve, which prevents sewer gas from getting back through the pipe. Pressure in the sewer system will push the water plug up into the toilet bowl, assuming you've re-installed it, and then keep pushing bubbles of gas up through the pipe. That's why modern drains are vented through the roof -- to prevent this kind of pressure buildup. However, if enough air is forced into the sewer, it can max out the flow capacity of the vents and pressurize the sewer. In that case, every toilet, sink, and shower connected to that sewer would blow the contents of the P trap, and send a fountain of whatever was in the trap and bowl into the bathroom. This would happen whether the toilet was being flushed at the moment or not. If the toilet was not in use at the time, the result would be fresh water anyway, not a big deal unless it hit your toothbrush.

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