Between boulder and hard place |

Home from ski trip, they find the rock fills the family room

The San Diego Union - Tribune; San Diego, Calif.; Feb 24, 2000; Kristen Green;

Cindy and Sam Sutherland got the call from Sam's mother while they were at Lake Tahoe on a ski trip. A rock had landed in their house, she told them, choking back tears.

"Get that little sucker and throw it out," Sam Sutherland told her.

Not exactly an easy task for an elderly grandmother. The rock, as it turns out, weighs about 55 tons and fits perfectly in their 400-square-foot family room.

The couple returned yesterday morning to find neighbors and news crews surrounding the Cottonwood home where they have lived for 15 years. They had caught a glimpse of the damage on a morning TV news broadcast. But it still didn't give them any idea what a whopper of a rock had crashed through the back of their house on Vista Grande Road.

"I didn't expect a big rock, just a rock," Sam Sutherland said. "You can't imagine a rock that fills up your house." It's gargantuan, in fact. Bigger than a couple of cars. But in all its enormity, it was surprisingly gentle as it settled down into the family room.

A huge clock still hung over the fireplace mantel. It had captured the exact moment the boulder crashed through the house Tuesday morning: 1:27 a.m. The couple's china collection and the crystal pieces that were spread out on a table in the dining room were spared. One or two were out of place, but there wasn't even a chip or crack.

The rock had broken off from an even bigger boulder up a hill behind the Sutherland's house on a neighbor's property. The rocks are magma that cooled about 100 million years ago and haven't moved since, said San Diego State University geology professor Pat Abbott. After several days of heavy rain, the sandy, granular debris that surrounded the boulder had washed away, and gravity caused a part of it to break off, Abbott said. When the boulder rolled down the hill, it left huge potholes in its path. Abbott said that when it got to the bottom of the steep slope, it became airborne and grazed a chain-link fence, then bulldozed through the Sutherlands' Jacuzzi and into their family room.

The air pressure from the boulder's landing caused the garage door to bow outward. But the air didn't compress evenly throughout the house, and that's why the Sutherlands' china survived the impact, Abbott said.

"Other than the dust, everything is just so normal," said a longtime friend of the couple, Marshall McGaughy, as he checked out the damage inside the house.

Abbott said the boulder's momentum was likely slowed by the energy it used jumping the fence. Otherwise, it probably could have continued through the house and down the hill, wreaking more havoc, he said.

"It's the biggest one of those things I've ever seen roll down a hill," Abbott said. The Sutherlands "are very, very lucky."

Even if the Sutherlands, both 53, had been home in bed, they likely would not have been injured because the boulder only damaged the family room, Abbott said. Cindy Sutherland thinks otherwise.

"I'm here to tell you I would have died of a heart attack," she said.

Neighbors said the booms of the boulder rolling down the hill and landing in the Sutherlandhome were louder than an earthquake. And Abbott warned that more boulders could come tumbling down. He suggested that the boulders might have to be secured.

The rock took down a wall, a floor and a rafter. It ruined an antique desk from Belgium and an antique chair, tipped a pool table on its side and destroyed a computer.

The Sutherlands don't know yet if the damage will be covered by insurance. They are living in a trailer parked outside in the meantime. Cindy Sutherland said she wants to tear up the entire house and start over. But first the rock will have to be blasted out, or cracked and pulled out piece by piece with a crane. That probably won't happen for a couple of months.

"I'm tired of that rock," Cindy Sutherland said. "I don't want him in my life any more."



Huge rock that damaged house to be chipped apart

The San Diego Union - Tribune Mar 29, 2000; Kristen Green;

Bye-bye, boulder.

An East County couple is bidding farewell to the 130-ton rock that rumbled down a hill and

crash-landed in their family room last month. Chunk by chunk, the massive granite boulder will be chipped apart in the next week and carted away.

Sam and Cindy Sutherland toyed with the idea of keeping the rock, or at least some part of it, and rebuilding the house around it. But Cindy Sutherland said the grays and blacks of the granite weren't her colors, so she and Sam decided the rock must go.

"It was a big relief to make the decision to get it out of there," she said.

The boulder plowed into the Sutherland's Cottonwood home in the early hours of Feb. 22 after it broke away from a larger boulder on a hill behind their house. It rolled down the hill, jumped a fence, battered its way through a Jacuzzi and plopped down in the living room.

The vacationing couple, summoned home, found the rock nestled in their family room. All the furniture had been destroyed, including a pool table. But much to their surprise, most of their other possessions were intact, including their china and crystal collections.

This week B&Z Builders Inc. of Kearny Mesa have begun clearing a path to the rock. Workers removed the roof Monday, and yesterday they were cleaning out the rubble from around the rock.

When the rock is more accessible, geologists will measure it. Then they'll bring in a tractor with a long arm and drill attached. The drill will put holes in to the rock 2 inches wide and 2 feet deep.

Next comes the boulder buster: a hand-held, gas-powered splitter that will be inserted into the holes. It will apply up to 350 tons of force to the rock's interior by separating the rock with metal wedges. Within minutes, the splitter will cause the rock to fracture into chunks 2- to 3-feet wide.

The Sutherlands chose this method of demolition instead of more costly ones that involved infusing the rock with chemicals or water to make it crack. Removing the rock this way will cost about $20,000 to $25,000.

"I've split a lot of rocks, but not inside a house," said Fred Kuhner, who is handling the job for B&Z Builders. After the rock is split apart, the bits of boulder will be loaded into a dump truck and hauled away. In the weeks after the boulder is removed, damage to the house will be assessed and construction crews will start to rebuild.

The foundation was not significantly damaged, so the house won't have to be razed. But the house will need a new roof and some new walls. The Sutherlands like the design of their three-bedroom home, so it will be reconstructed almost exactly to the original plan.


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