The shrieking came from inside the jumble of tents and bedding and personal belongings scooped off the street.
Arms started flailing and the screams grew louder.
In what could have turned into a fatal blunder, a homeless man scrambled out of a San Diego city trash truck and avoided being crushed by mere seconds last month, city officials say.
Officials told San Diego Union-Tribune, the man walked away before work crews could offer assistance — or even collect his name and information.
"This was a terrible incident and all involved were shaken by what occurred," Paz Gomez, deputy chief operating officer, said in an emailed statement. "Based on initial accounts, city staff and the city's abatement contractor tried to follow up with the individual but the person immediately left the scene and couldn't be located."
Work was suspended for the day to figure out exactly what went wrong.
The incident occurred Dec. 22 in downtown San Diego as police and code-enforcement officers were performing a regular clearing of homeless encampments.
The abatements involve removing property left on the street, usually by homeless people.
According to people familiar with what happened, police officers at the scene approved the area for clearing before work crews heaved the tent into the trash truck. Presumably they thought the tent was filled with bedding and other discards.
San Diego police did not respond to questions about why officers allowed the code-enforcement team to proceed with the removal of an occupied tent.
In recent years, block after block of some downtown San Diego neighborhoods have become makeshift camps for a population of homeless people that has swelled past 9,000.
The accumulation of trash and lack of sanitation contributed to a hepatitis A outbreak last year that killed 20 people and sickened almost 600 before the public-health emergency was declared over this week.
Under a settlement reached in 2011 and approved by a federal judge, San Diego is required to follow specific steps before, during and after the cleanups — protocols that appear to have fallen short in this case.
Attorney Scott Dreher, who negotiated the settlement seven years ago, was stunned when told about the accident last month.
"Thank God somebody heard the guy and stopped it because it would have been way worse," he said. "As bad as this is, the lawyer part of me doesn't think there was any kind of malice. It may have been carelessness, it may have been a lack of communication."
Gomez said the city is careful to follow all of the procedures spelled out under the agreement.
"City crews work diligently with homeless individuals to alert them of upcoming abatements and follow strict written procedures when conducting abatements," she wrote. ""Obviously this event was unacceptable and the city is taking action to ensure this never happens again."
McDonald writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.