The televised drowning of 15-year-old Adam Bischoff in the rain-swollen Los Angeles River despite multiple rescue attempts has prompted calls for better ways of dealing with such emergencies, including training for police officers, use of county lifeguards or equipping bridges over the river with nets or cables for victims to grab.
Although the intensity of the recent flurry of storms was rare for Los Angeles, police officials are discussing ways to prepare for the inevitable repeat occurrences, including providing water-rescue classes for their personnel, perhaps taught by Los Angeles County lifeguards.
On Friday, City Councilwoman Joy Picus proposed permanently attaching rescue nets and cables to bridges along the river to “improve the chances of successfully rescuing people from this fast-flowing river.”
Posting lifeguards at San Fernando Valley police stations during the storm that was forecast for this weekend also was being considered by police and county lifeguard authorities. Lifeguards apparently were never contacted on Wednesday--when the 15-year-old boy slipped while riding his bicycle along a flood-control channel in Woodland Hills and was washed into the river--because the nearest who were on duty were at coastal beaches, at least a half-hour away by car.
The county’s chief lifeguard, Don Rohrer, said swimming techniques and flotation devices used in riptides might have saved Adam. But Rohrer said even if county lifeguards had been summoned, they probably could not have reached the Valley in time from either their Santa Monica or Zuma Beach headquarters.
The emergency call reporting Adam’s plight was received by police at 11:28 a.m. After several heroic attempts to pluck him from the water by firefighters and police officers, he disappeared underwater at 12:06 p.m. just west of Balboa Boulevard, according to a police report. His body was found wedged under a palm tree the next day.
“The last thing I’m trying to do is second-guess the police and firefighters out there,” Rohrer said. “Everybody was kind of in a holding pattern that day. . . . The danger seemed to have passed. It was pretty hard to anticipate that that kid was going to ride into there.”
Randy DeGregori, assistant lifeguard chief, said many lifeguards felt helpless as they watched Adam’s futile struggle against the river on television. He said some were angry they were not called to help, as they had been Monday when about 70 cars became stalled in flash floods at the Sepulveda Basin.
But citing the river’s speed and rapidly moving debris, DeGregori said he was unsure whether they could have helped even if they had reached the scene in the short time available. “Without knowledge of what hazards are downstream, anyone who entered the water was really taking their life into their own hands.”
The lifeguards were not asked to remain on duty in the Valley for possible later emergencies after they helped with Monday’s rescue of motorists because fire officials determined that the Sepulveda Basin was secure, city Fire Department Battalion Chief Dean Cathey said. No one anticipated an emergency in the channel, he said.
Although the Fire Department is the lead agency in rescues, several officers and detectives from the West Valley Division joined in efforts to save Adam because the channel runs behind the police station.
Detective Randy Frederickson, who was among those who tried to help, said the idea of seeking additional training came as he and other West Valley officers shared their grief and frustrations after Adam’s body was found.
Capt. Valentino Paniccea, the West Valley’s commander, said a sporting goods store on Friday donated $300 worth of equipment--including ropes, hooks and mountain-climbing harnesses--to his station, and that basic training in their use would begin at roll call Friday night.
He said he also planned to train a cadre of 20 officers in water rescues, enough to have at least one or two on duty during every shift.
Sgt. Craig Aliano, who was the watch commander when the emergency call concerning Adam came into the West Valley station, said he asked someone to call county lifeguards then, but canceled the request when he realized they could not get to the scene in time.
Aliano said he has asked that lifeguards be posted at the station during the weekend “just in case.” Rohrer said he had not yet received that request, but had already put his 800 lifeguards on notice that they should go to the Valley or other flooded areas if called upon.
County public works officials, who are responsible for the 470 miles of open flood channels throughout Los Angeles, defended themselves against criticism that poor fence maintenance allowed Adam and a companion to ride their bikes into Arroyo Calabasas, a deep flood-control channel that empties into the river.
Adam apparently entered through a hole in the fence at a construction site.
“There is no way we can close it all off. . . . The best thing we can do is alert the public to the danger,” said Thomas A. Tidemanson, public works director, at a news conference at the department’s Alhambra offices on Friday.
County maintenance crews are constantly repairing holes cut in the fences, usually within a week of receiving a report from staff members or residents, said Dave Potter, an assistant engineer in the department’s flood maintenance division.
In dry times, when most of the waterways are dry, the priority is to seal entrances to the deepest channels to prevent people from falling in and hitting bottom. During storms, Potter said, the department’s attention turns largely to keeping the washes free of debris so that they flow steadily.
Potter said he was not aware of where Adam might have entered the channel or why there might have been a hole there. But he said there is no way to keep people out of the channels if they are intent on getting in.
James Maddux, a recreational scuba diver from Van Nuys, said he ran to the nearby channel in his gear when he heard of Adam’s plight on the news--only to be stopped from entering the water by a firefighter.
Maddux angrily expressed disbelief that professional rescuers were not equipped with wet suits to protect them from hypothermia, or that at the very least they had not tried calling on divers from several scuba shops in the Valley.
“I just want it brought to people’s attention that this kid’s death was unnecessary,” said Maddux, 25. “I cannot stand to watch human life wasted over ignorance. It was pure stupidity.”
But diving instructors at two scuba shops said the channel’s churning waters, filled with debris ranging up to large trees and appliances, posed too great a threat for someone not specifically trained in river rescues. Both instructors said Maddux would have faced serious injury or death if he had entered the water.
Cathey said he was not specifically aware of a scuba diver at the scene but said the Fire Department as a rule does not allow civilians to participate in rescues unless they can prove they have special training.
“There’s no way we can verify a person’s training and credentials at a moment like that,” he said. “We’re certainly not going to allow someone like that to put themselves at risk and give us an additional rescue situation to deal with.”
Precipitation for the five-day period ending 4:30 p.m. Friday.*
Woodland Burbank Encino Northridge Hills Newhall Palmdale Monday 4.00 4.57 4.62 6.14 3.06 1.42 Tuesday 2.18 3.04 2.64 2.78 1.67 1.51 Wednesday 3.30 3.57 4.24 3.61 3.92 1.19 Thursday 0.50 0.32 1.12 0.72 1.24 0.21 Friday 0.00 tr 0.00 tr 0.00 0.00 Total 9.98 11.5 12.62 13.25 9.89 4.33
San Westlake Fernando Village Monday 0.96 6.00 Tuesday 5.82 1.10 Wednesday 1.52 3.50 Thursday 2.23 0.95 Friday 0.11 0.00 Total 10.64 11.55
Information provided by WeatherData Inc., Continental Weather Services Inc., Burbank Fire Department, Palmdale Water District, San Fernando Public Works Department, Westlake Village Fire Department.
*San Fernando precipitation measured at 7 a.m.