A frantic, overnight search for Jesse Hernandez — the 13-year-old boy who plunged into a vast network of city sewer tunnels beneath Griffith Park — ended happily Monday morning after sanitation workers removed a manhole cover and spotted the boy peering back at them.
“Once I pulled the lid off the manhole cover he was just like right there,” the worker told police in a recorded call.
Jesse, who was spending Easter with his family at the park, fell into the sewer system at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday after jumping on wooden planks in an abandoned, concrete building that was decommissioned by the city’s Bureau of Sanitation years ago, authorities said. One of the planks broke, and the teen plunged 25 feet into a 4-foot-wide pipe.
The accident triggered a massive search effort as crews used remote video cameras and other “Batman-like” tools to locate the boy in a maze of underground pipes and cisterns, according to Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Erik Scott. The search, which lasted 13 hours, was a race against time, Scott said, as “survivability diminishes in that toxic environment.”
Jesse was spotted “alert and talking” roughly two-thirds-of-a-mile away from where he disappeared. A sanitation crew was preparing to insert cameras into a maintenance hatch on the 134 Freeway near Interstate 5 when they located the boy. Rescue crews gave him a cellphone so he could call his family to let them know he was OK.
“What a beautiful outcome,” Scott said.
Jesse underwent decontamination and was then 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.
Fire officials said they had searched about 6,400 feet of pipe in a network that parallels the L.A. River and crosses under freeways.
They studied maps of the closed sewage pipe system, which stretches hundreds of feet, and sent a camera attached to a flotation device 300 feet down a pipe. They set up at different areas, including the L.A. River and a drain near Chevy Chase Drive, hoping the boy would come through one of the pipes. 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.
"That place is a maze," Los Angeles police Sgt. Bruno La Hoz said Sunday evening.
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 pipe into which Jesse fell runs parallel to the 134 Freeway, then veers 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 was built in 1965.
The structure above it, where Jesse was playing, was decommissioned in the 1980s, but the pipe itself was active and carrying sewage, officials said. The structure in the sanitation yard 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.
The department’s investigation of the incident will include an examination of why the building has not been torn down, Hagekhalil said.
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.
Between 9 and 10 p.m. Sunday, workers launched two cameras into the 1.2-mile span of pipe where they had narrowed their search. Each camera had lights and was strapped to a floating platform that resembled a mini-surfboard.
The cameras slowly cruised through the pipes, tethered to nearby trucks through 1,000-foot video cables, Hagekhalil said. The crews, Hagekhalil said, worked methodically, inserting cameras into maintenance hatches that pop up every 1,000 feet or so, and peered at the live feed on video screens inside their trucks for signs of life.
At 4 a.m., footage from one camera showed smeared handprints along the wall of the sewer, as if Jesse had thrown out his hands to brace himself against the flow, said Scott. Further down the pipe, workers saw a mark that suggested the boy had thrown his shoulder against the wall.
Intending to feed a camera in and look for more evidence closer to the handprints, maintenance workers headed to a hatch on a westbound lane of the 134 Freeway, just north of the 5, shortly before 5 a.m. Monday. The California Highway patrol shut down the lane of traffic, and sanitation workers opened the hatch.
They were expecting to see a well-like vault leading to dark, rushing water below. Instead, Jesse peered up at them from 11 feet down, wedged into the maintenance shaft and calling for help.
The boy was wet, cold and scared, Scott said.
Sanitation workers grabbed a reel of an orange hose attached to a truck and fed it down into the vault. Jesse grabbed on, and they hauled him back up.
“This young man rose like Jesus,” said Bryant Jones, a sanitation manager. In his 32 years with the department, he had never heard of someone being trapped in the sewer.
Using a hose to get 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.”
About 20 of the boy's family members, including his mother, aunt and cousins, were at the scene Sunday evening.
The family comes to the park every year to celebrate Easter, said Dominique Barraza, 16, a family friend. They were about to do an Easter egg hunt when the incident happened.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, speaking Monday at an opening ceremony for an affordable housing development in Boyle Heights, 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.”