DOWN UNDER : San Diego's Underground Creeps, Crawls, Works

The San Diego underground--those countless miles of tunnels harboring power, sewer and telephone lines--serves as a unique environment for a handful of technicians who ensure that these services function smoothly. For eight hours a day, the vaults beneath the surface of the earth are their office.

These people don't have stories of gigantic alligators or killer rats roaming deep below us. But their tales do include some surprises:

For the past eight years, Ron Smith has been fishing out tires, dolls, hot water heaters, golf and tennis balls, and even a seven-foot boa constrictor from sewer lines 80 feet under the ground.

The 58-year-old maintenance supervisor keeps the six huge pumps operating at the city's Pump Station No. 2, located just west of Lindbergh Field on Harbor Drive. All local sewer lines pour into this plant, where Smith's crew begins preliminary waste-water screening and treatment before pumping the material to the Point Loma waste-water treatment facility, where solid waste is extracted from the liquid and trucked to Fiesta Island for drying.

"People kid me all the time about crawling around in the sewers," the ex-Navy metalsmith said. "But I don't mind a bit. "It's pretty clean down here and there's hardly an odor at all. It's not like sloshing around in the stuff that you flush down the toilet."

Above ground in the operations room, there's no clue whatsoever that the entire city's sewer lines converge here. It's only after walking down a seemingly endless flight of stairs to reach the bottom level that a faint smell tips off the plant's function. There a maze of concrete tunnels interlock with a series of 54-inch pipes that carry all the city's sewer water. Constant 40 m.p.h. winds down here can almost whip a shirt off a worker's back.

Roar of Pump Motors

"The wind comes from blowers that force cool air to circulate around the pumps and keep them from overheating," Smith shouted above the roar of pump motors.

Smith goes down into his labyrinth when there are problems with large debris clogging the pumps (which can happen several times a week). "First, we try to clear the blockage by reversing the pumps to flush the stuff out," he said. "But if that doesn't work, we'll crawl into the lines ourselves and do it manually. Plumber's test plugs give us the worst problems. They're about two feet long and four inches in diameter and can really get wedged in the pumps. Most of the time we end up cutting them out."

Items smaller than 30 inches go right through the pump and are scooped out of the system by screens.

"I see just about everything coming through here," he said. That includes goldfish, frogs, countless toys (which are on display in the plant's office above ground), a vast array of vegetables--especially carrots, celery and potatoes dumped from restaurants--and even an occasional boa constrictor. A few years ago his crew found a seven-foot boa.

"We took him out of the screen, washed him up, and he curled up over there in a corner and went to sleep," Smith said. "The next day, we called an animal control officer to take him away." A few times, workers have taken the boas home as pets.

The most bizarre find was a series of human fetuses Smith discovered coming through the system three years ago.

"I guess a doctor was doing abortions and flushed them down the toilet," he said. "We found six of them coming through during a two-week period. It really slowed us down because each time we had to call the police and the coroner and it ended up being a four-hour process to get all the proper officials involved and the paper work done."

Pump to Pump

Smith would much rather be plucking out the old automobile tires that often bounce back and forth from pump to pump.

When a large blockage occurs, Smith and his crew shut off the pumps between 2 and 6 a.m., the time of least usage, and go down to remove the material.

"Each one of these pumps move 50,000 gallons a minute," he said. "And when we turn them back on, all that material that's been just sitting in the city's sewer lines comes roaring through," he said.

Four years ago, Smith almost got caught in the deluge.

"I was down here working with three other men on the screens in front of the 54-inch pipes and somebody above accidentally opened the gates. I could hear the rush of water and within seconds it was up to our knees. Boy, did we move fast to jump on the wall ladder and climb out of here."

When San Diego Gas & Electric's Gary Frymiller descends into the underground, sweat pours from his brow as he passes the ancient roaring furnace in the company's steam power plant at the foot of Broadway. The structure dates back to 1911 when it was part of the San Diego Electrified Railroad Co.

Live steam, generated for heating downtown buildings, comes off the boiler into a four-mile line at a sizzling 350 degrees. The manholes that Frymiller works in to maintain the line, 10 feet below the ground, are a sauna-like 140 degrees, and that's after he's cooled them down with blowers.

Used to the Heat

"Aw, you get used to the heat," he said, shrugging. But the 50-year-old Frymiller said he can only stay down in a hole for 30 minutes, "otherwise my legs and arms turn to rubber." And he chuckles when an occasional helper gasps for breath and heads to the surface after only five minutes below.

"There's no doubt about it, this is hot, nasty work, but I'm my own boss. I set up my own schedule, and this is my baby," he said proudly.

For 21 years, he's been the sole maintenance man for the old steam line that still serves 40 customers.

"When I took over this job in 1966, the only one who really knew the line was my predecessor who was old and very sick," Frymiller said. "I found out he was in the hospital, so I rushed over with my underground maps of the system, and he showed me where all the traps and grades were just before he died."

However, the antiquated line is scheduled to be shut down in three years, a victim of modern, less costly systems.

"So, these days I do strictly maintenance," he said. "Our customers on the line are dwindling fast because owners can heat their buildings a lot cheaper with their own systems."

The Grossmont High graduate, who played professional baseball with the Phoenix Stars for two seasons before joining SDG&E;, has a keen appreciation for his unique work.

"I'm continually amazed at how well this steam system has held up over 60 years of constant use," he said. "The old pipes from the 1920s are in good shape, but the fittings are brittle, and I've got to watch it so they don't break off while I'm working on them."

He knows intimately all the original manholes in the system, which are made out of brick and placed about every 300 feet on the line. They are twice the size of more modern manholes, and he delights in pointing out how well crafted they are.

"You can tell the workmanship was excellent in those days," he said. "These bricks from the 1920s will hold up indefinitely. Now look over here at the cement used later on, and you can see that it's crumbling already."

Because of the intense heat, he rarely comes upon any underground animals except in the system's basement hookups at old hotels, where he stirs up nests of giant cockroaches and water bugs.

"These bugs can't hurt but they sure give me the creeps running up and down my arms," he said.

Above ground along the system, he pointed out manhole covers where transients occasionally use the steam escaping through the holes to cook meals and keep warm. But that source of heat will be gone in 1991.

"When the plant closes, concrete will be poured into the ends of the line and the manholes sealed up," he said. "I'm just glad I've had the privilege to work this fine old system for so long. I'll miss it a lot."

Frymiller may then link up with his brother, Neil, 47, a cable splicer in SDG&E;'s modern underground electrical network.

Like his brother, Neil expresses a deep appreciation for the old ways. He joined SDG&E; three years after Gary and fondly recalls his early days working with lead-sealed cables, which have been phased out in favor of less-expensive but less durable plastic cables.

"It was an art to splice those old lead cables, and we had to use tin heated to 800 degrees above ground and delivered to us below in a bucket," Neil Frymiller said. "I found out how dangerous it could be on a downtown job 10 years ago. I was at the bottom of an 18-foot manhole, and the guy above accidentally knocked over the bucket of hot tin, and it poured down onto the puddle of water we were standing in. All of a sudden, we felt we were in the middle of a gigantic explosion."

Frymiller and his co-workers escaped with only minor burns. But the incident illustrated the safety hazards using the old methods. It didn't diminish his love for working with the old lead-sealed cable, which he said will last up to 50 years. Plastic lasts about 20 and is subject to a decaying process from electricity called "treeing."

"It was much more of a challenge to do splicing then," he said. "Now, I just peel off the insulation, squeeze rubber molding on it, replug, and that's it."

But he still likes being underground.

Once, in a manhole, at 8th Avenue and Broadway, he picked up what appeared to be a stick.

"It turned out to be an 18-inch alligator lizard," he said. "It bit one of us, and then we all got out of there fast.

"I'll find a rat or two, and every now and then some mice, but the only animals we see all the time are cockroaches, and they're everywhere underground."

By far the most significant event below ground for Frymiller was meeting his future wife, Alma, who was a helper on his crew in 1975 and the company's first female underground worker.

"We had a great time together," she said. "I really enjoyed being able to do what was considered strictly a man's job. I'd go back underground with him again in a minute, but I've got my hands full now raising our two children."

Pacific Bell's Jan Schoenwald, 36, found herself in a similar situation when she became one of the company's first woman underground telephone cable splicers in 1978.

"It's no big deal these days" she said, "but I did cut out the 'n' from my 'Men Working' sign so it reads 'Me Working.'

The vaults she works in, unlike the Frymillers' manholes, are sealed in on all sides by cement walls so there are usually no encounters with animals, except for a few snakes in outlying East County areas that get in through the manhole covers.

"I just grab 'em and toss 'em out," she said. But she's much less casual about the street traffic above her, which she and other splicers consider their worst problem.

"Before I go down to do a job, I set up a safety area marked with cones, and just about every time when I come back up, I find them scattered all over the place," she said.

Earlier this year, a careless driver plowed right through her cones and safety barricades and smashed into her truck, which then rolled onto her open manhole, trapping her underneath.

"I heard a big crash and then broken glass showered down onto my hair. I looked up and saw the bottom of my truck."

Managed to Squeeze Out

She immediately tapped into a telephone line and called 911 to report the accident.

"You can imagine what the 911 operator thought when I told her I was trapped in a manhole by a car," she said. "That message to the police went out over the air as someone having fallen into a manhole."

She finally was able to squeeze up under her truck and get out, but the experience has left her extremely wary of traffic.

The other main hazard for telephone technicians is finding pools of gasoline in the underground vaults.

"The gasoline comes from leaks in gas stations' old, underground metal tanks," she explained. "Those tanks can't handle unleaded gasoline because the detergent in it rots their seams. Our underground vault at Montezuma and College draws so much gas that we put in a drainage hole to collect it."

A Pac Bell spokesman said that when gasoline is found in a vault, the company routinely contacts a private contractor who pumps it out.

One special challenge Schoenwald especially enjoys is lifting off the 300-pound manhole lids that seal the underground vaults.

"I pop them open with a sissy bar and flip 'em like tiddlywinks," she said. "If they're stuck I just take a big hammer and pound the rust off. I never had one I couldn't open until I was assigned a job recently on Park Boulevard. I always receive very precise locations of the holes, but I couldn't find that one anywhere. Well, we discovered that the city paved over it and didn't leave a trace. We finally found it with a metal detector."

Being underground in a cement vault isn't everybody's idea of fun, but Schoenwald loves it.

"I'm out of the elements. The sun doesn't crisp me out, and I don't get rained on. I've got my own world down here," she said.

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