After hours of searching for Jesse Hernandez, the 13-year-old boy who plunged through a wooden plank in an abandoned Griffith Park city building and into the city’s network of sewage pipes, rescuers still had not seen him anywhere.
So late Sunday night, city workers launched two video cameras into the 1.2-mile span of pipe where they had focused their search. Each camera had lights, and was strapped to a floating platform that resembled a mini-surfboard.
The footage that the cameras captured became the key to finding Jesse early Monday morning — cold and scared, but relatively unscathed.
Crews worked methodically, inserting the video cameras into the pipe through maintenance hatches and lowering them into the water. The cameras, tethered with 1,000-foot video cables, sent back grainy but visible live footage of the inside of the tunnel, said Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director of the Bureau of Sanitation.
Rescuers in nearby trucks peered at the videos, watching the liquid splashing against the lenses, searching for signs of life.
At 4 a.m., one camera moved past a long, smeared handprint along the tunnel wall, as if Jesse had flung out his hand to brace himself against the flow, Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Erik Scott said. Further down the pipe, workers saw a bigger mark that suggested the boy had thrown his shoulder against the wall.
Intending to feed a camera in and search for more evidence near the hand marks, maintenance workers headed to a hatch on a westbound lane of the 134 Freeway, just north of the 5 Freeway, shortly before 5 a.m. Monday. The California Highway patrol shut down the lane of traffic, and sanitation workers opened the portal.
They expected to see a well-like vault leading to dark, rushing water below. Instead, they saw Jesse, wedged into the bottom of an 11-foot maintenance shaft, calling for help.
The boy was wet, cold and scared, Scott said. He was found about two-thirds of a mile from where he fell in.
Fire officials said they had searched about 6,400 feet of pipe — about 1.2 miles — in a network that parallels the L.A. River, crosses under freeways and branches off multiple times.
The pipe system has varying depths of water moving at roughly 15 mph. Rescuers couldn’t enter the drainage area themselves because of the hazardous environment, said David Ortiz, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
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.
“That place is a maze,” Los Angeles police Sgt. Bruno La Hoz said Sunday evening.
During an Easter outing, Jesse and his cousins made their way to an abandoned concrete building near Zoo Drive on the north end of the park. The structure was built decades ago to vent hydrogen sulfide gas from the sewer pipes and introduce fresh air into the pipes, but 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. He plunged 25 feet into a 4-foot-wide pipe. His cousins screamed his name, hearing only their echoes in response.
The pipe into which Jesse fell runs parallel to the 134 Freeway, then veers south near the 5, eventually branching off into a series of smaller pipes on the east side of the L.A. River. The pipe was built in 1965.
After the hours of steady searching, the moment of rescue was simple. The sanitation workers who opened the manhole cover and heard Jesse’s cry for help lowered an orange sewage hose into the hole. Jesse grabbed it, they raised him up, and set him on the ground.
His first call was to his parents.