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Inside the frantic search for the 13-year-old boy lost deep in L.A. waterworks

Inside the frantic search for the 13-year-old boy lost deep in L.A. waterworks
Firefighters search for a Jesse Hernandez, 13, in a hole near the Los Angeles River at the interchange of the 134 and 5 freeways on Sunday night. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

As the hours ticked past, it became less and less likely that the teenage boy would be found alive.

On Easter Sunday, Jesse Hernandez, 13, plunged into the maze of sewage pipes beneath Griffith Park and was lost in a toxic area so hazardous that rescuers could not lower themselves down to look for him. Scores of emergency workers searched through the night, finding no sign of the boy.

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Then, at 4 a.m. Monday — nearly 12 hours after Jesse had vanished — rescue workers watching a live feed from a camera lowered into the pipes spotted a sign of life: a pair of smeared handprints on the wall of the sewer. A little farther, another mark suggested the boy had thrown his shoulder against the pipe.

The frantic search ended happily a short time later, when sanitation workers removed a manhole cover and spotted Jesse peering up at them. They quickly lowered an orange hose down and hoisted him up.

“This young man rose like Jesus,” said Bryant Jones, a city sanitation manager.

The search, which lasted 13 hours, was a desperate race against time, said Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Erik Scott, because “survivability diminishes in that toxic environment.”

The accident triggered a massive search effort, drawing more than 100 firefighters, police officers and sanitation workers. Crews used remote video cameras and other “Batman-like” tools to locate the boy in the vast network of pipes and cisterns, Scott said.

They had no idea where the boy might turn up, and questions lingered Sunday afternoon: Did the pipes contain fresh water or sewage? Did they lead to a treatment plant or the Los Angeles River? How far could Hernandez travel, and how fast?

“It’s hard to get eyes on,” Scott said of the sewer system. “Where is he? Where will he go?”

Rescuers searched about 6,400 feet of pipe in a network that parallels the Los Angeles River and crosses under freeways. They studied maps of the closed sewage pipe system and sent rescuers to points along the way where they thought he could emerge. The Fire Department dispatched swift-water rescue teams in case Jesse wound up in the river and urban search and rescue crews in case they needed to extricate him from a small space.

Jesse was found shortly before 5 a.m. Monday beneath a hatch on a westbound lane of the 134 Freeway, just west of the 5 Freeway. He had traveled roughly two-thirds of a mile from where he disappeared.

“I was just praying to God to help me and to not die,” Jesse said in an interview with NBC News. “I was scared.”

It had started off as a typical Easter Sunday for Jesse’s family, who go to Griffith Park every year to celebrate, said Dominique Barraza, 16, a family friend. They were just about to start an Easter egg hunt, but Jesse and his cousins had run off.

The boys had made their way to an abandoned concrete building near Zoo Drive on the north end of the park that was decommissioned by the city’s Bureau of Sanitation in the 1980s. The boys were jumping on wooden planks in the building about 4:30 p.m. when one of them broke beneath Jesse.

The teen plunged 25 feet into a 4-foot-wide pipe. His cousins screamed his name, hearing only their echoes in response, friends at the scene said.

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Although the building where the boys played was abandoned, the pipe itself was active and carrying sewage, officials said. The structure was built decades ago to vent hydrogen sulfide gas from the sewer pipes and introduce fresh air into the pipes, said Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director of the Bureau of Sanitation.

Here is video footage from inside the sewer pipe that 13-year-old Jesse Hernandez was swept into beneath Griffith Park on Sunday.

The department’s investigation of the incident will include an examination of why the building has not been torn down, Hagekhalil said. The building was cordoned off with a chain-link fence, and it is believed that Jesse and his companions either jumped over it or crawled through a hole that had been cut into it, Hagekhalil said.

On Monday morning, the air near the building carried a pungent, sulfur-like odor.

The sewage in the pipe would have been moving fast enough — and the walls would be slimy enough — that Jesse would have been swept along without being able to walk or crawl, officials said.

The pipe, which was built in 1965, runs parallel to the 134 Freeway, then veers to the south near the 5 Freeway, eventually branching off into a series of smaller pipes on the east side of the L.A. River. The pipe system has varying depths of water moving at roughly 14 mph, officials said.

Between 9 and 10 p.m. Sunday, workers launched two cameras into the 1.2-mile span of pipe to which they had narrowed their search. Each camera had lights and was strapped to a floating platform the resembled a mini-surfboard.

The cameras slowly cruised through the pipes, tethered to nearby trucks with 1,000-foot video cables. One camera tipped over into the sewage early on and had to be pulled back and reoriented, taking up precious time, Hagekhalil said.

Crews worked methodically, inserting the cameras into maintenance hatches that pop up every 1,000 feet or so and correspond with vault-like areas inside the pipes. They looked at the live feed on video screens inside their trucks for signs of Jesse.

Video footage shows brown sewage water sloshing through the pipes. At about 4 a.m., rescuers spotted Jesse’s handprints streaked along the wall.

Intending to feed a camera in to look for more evidence closer to the handprints, maintenance workers headed to a hatch near where the 134 Freeway intersects with the 5. The California Highway Patrol shut down a lane of traffic, and sanitation workers opened the manhole cover.

They were expecting to see a well-like vault leading to dark, rushing water below. Instead, there was Jesse, 11 feet down, wedged into the maintenance shaft and calling for help.

“Once I pulled the lid off the manhole cover he was just like right there,” a worker told police in a recorded call.

The boy was wet, cold and scared, Scott said.

Sanitation workers grabbed a reel of hose attached to a truck and fed it down into the vault. Jesse grabbed on.

Using a hose to pull the boy out “was not standard procedure,” Hagekhalil said. “But when you have a kid you’ve been looking for and he’s right in front of you, you’ll do anything.”

Rescue crews handed Jesse a cellphone so he could call his family to let him know he was OK. He was decontaminated at the scene and taken to a nearby hospital for a medical examination. He was released from the hospital by 11:15 a.m., according to the Bureau of Sanitation.

About 20 of Jesse’s family members, including his mother, aunt and cousins, huddled in Griffith Park throughout the night. They stood in a circle, holding hands with their heads bowed in prayer.

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday said it was “just a miracle that this boy was alive.”

“He hung on,” Garcetti said. “He’s courageous, and so were the first responders who worked around the clock.”

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