GRIFFITH PARK — A 13-year-old boy rescued about 12 hours after he fell into a sewage pipe in Griffith Park said he couldn’t see anything after he dropped his cellphone during his underground ordeal.
“I was just praying to God to help me to not die,” Jesse Hernandez told NBC4.
The incident was reported about 4:30 p.m. April 1 by a bystander, Margaret Stewart of the Los Angeles Fire Department said, prompting a search that began at 5254 W. Zoo Drive, near the train museum in Griffith Park.
The boy and his friends had climbed a chain-link fence around an abandoned maintenance shack and were playing on it when a plank broke apart and he fell into a sewage system opening that led to the Los Angeles River, officials said.
Jesse was found after a painstaking and methodical search involving firefighters and workers from the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Los Angeles Police Department and California Highway Patrol officers, park rangers and the Department of Water and Power.
“We have found Jesse Hernandez,” LAFD Capt. Erik Scott told reporters at 5:41 a.m. April 2.
Firefighters had narrowed the search to two main areas and opened a maintenance hatch near the intersection of the Ventura (134) and Golden State (5) freeways and found Jesse, Scott said.
Firefighters gave him a cellphone so he could reassure his family, and paramedics took the teen to a hospital for decontamination and medical aid, Scott said.
“I want to say thank you so much for helping me and for searching those long hours,” the boy — who was a little scraped and banged up but otherwise in good health — told NBC4.
Rescuers dropped cameras that could float along the bottom of pipes where Hernandez fell. The network of sewage pipes is a closed system that required a detailed search on each possible pathway, Stewart said.
The team mounted a camera on a flotation device that was tethered to a rope and extended 300 feet down a pipe.
According to the fire department, the pipes are four feet in diameter and are filled with liquid at varying depth of two feet and deeper, sometimes moving at 15 miles per hour. The pipes parallel the Los Angeles River and cross under freeways.
“The expertise of the Bureau of Sanitation was instrumental in this search,” Stewart said. “Approximately 2,400 feet of pipe had been thoroughly inspected — and the search was continuing — when a maintenance hatch west of the westbound 134 Freeway under the 5 Freeway was opened to insert cameras. This was where Jesse was found alert and talking.”
A sanitation official said one camera had showed “some hand markings on the sewer itself — inside — (and) it appears that he was trying to get out.”
Crews went to the location and found a maintenance hole to access the pipe, said Adel Hagekhalil, who is in charge of the city’s wastewater collection system.
“They … broke that maintenance hole loose, opened it, and the first thing they heard is ‘help,’” Hagekhalil said. “They were thrilled. Right away they saw Jesse about 11 feet into this structure [which] is 11 feet deep and 42 inches in diameter. They lowered (a) hose … he caught onto the hose. It was reeled back up, and he sat down on the floor.
“The first thing he wanted was a cellphone to call his family,” Hagekhalil said. “The worker gave him a cellphone to call the family, and that connection was made. He was happy; the family was happy.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti praised the “patience and optimism” of the boy’s family members, who were supported by the mayor’s Crisis Response Team “during this harrowing experience.”