09/09/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/08/2012 05:12 EST

Sinkhole erodes patience in nation's capital, void filled with humour

OTTAWA - Canadians who have grumbled at tax or election time about Ottawa being a big sinkhole may well have been on to something.

The cavernous pit that suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the nation's capital last week didn't swallow political promises or federal tax dollars — not yet, anyway. But it did gulp down — and even seem to digest — a small car.

Juan Pedro Unger's Hyundai Accent went headlights first into the hole, leaving him suspended by his seatbelt. Only the car's back bumper showed above the rim of the chasm — sort of like the cars in Hollywood movies about earthquakes.

One of the capital's main traffic arteries, Highway 174, has been closed since then, wreaking commuter havoc.

"There were two big gaps with water flowing into them like a river was forming, and completely pitch black under it," Unger told CBC Radio about what he saw.

Luckily, he wasn't seriously hurt. But suburbanites unaccustomed to the hours-long, soul-crushing commutes of, say, Toronto or Montreal, are losing their patience. Between 9,000-11,000 Ottawa residents drive on that area of highway each afternoon rush hour.

"We've been promoting the idea of employees working staggered hours, if any employee could start work earlier and finish earlier, that's definitely the best thing," said city councillor Bob Monette, whose ward sits in the eye of the storm.

"We're also encouraging if their employer is flexible, to work from home. The least amount of cars we get on the road, the better it is."

Experts say a half-century old stormwater culvert buried under the highway appears to have rusted out and collapsed, causing flowing water to erode the road's foundation.

Carleton University transportation engineering professor Abd El Halim likened it to an empty egg shell. When there's stuff inside the egg — an intact pipe, for example — the structure remains solid. But once that's gone, the shell of asphalt can easily cave in.

There have been several other examples of sinkholes across Canada — on busy Sherbrooke Street in Montreal earlier this summer, for example.

El Halim called the 174 sinkhole a wake-up call.

"You have to go back and review all our designs underneath, all of our structures over the years, find which ones that have surpassed or are close to the end of their useful life, and fix them," he said.

"It's easy to do that. We have equipment to tell us whether the structure is valid to carry the weight of our trucks and vehicles for the next five years. But it is a expensive process that will require a lot of manpower and a lot of time."

A large proportion of the 3.6-metre wide replacement pipes have to be custom manufactured, meaning the highway might not be reopened for another 10 days. Meanwhile, Unger's car was sucked further into the now swimming pool-sized hole, drifting along underground waters before it was finally pulled out Friday night.

So what's a citizen to do to fill the, er, void? Humour seems to help.

The cave-in now has its own sassy Twitter account, @174sinkhole.

"It's Friday, hoping that somebody parks a BeerStore truck close by, on a slope and leaves it in neutral," the apparently thirsty sinkhole tweeted.

"Second day of classes and I am already late for my first class. New record Hannah," college student Hannah Cameron tweeted.

Local radio stations have been having a field day. Kiss FM changed the opening lyrics to Maroon 5's hit "Payphone," to "I'm in a sinkhole..."

Scott Searle, a high school teacher who coaches the University of Ottawa's softball team, said his athletes took two-and-a-half hours to make it to a practice that is usually only a 15 minute drive away.

At first, Searle said, he didn't believe the players.

"It was kind of a crazy thing for a coach to have players show up late and then telling you that the ground fell out from underneath them — or just ahead of them — and that there's a hole in the ground," he said.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the car was still in the sinkhole

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