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13-Year-Old Boy Rescued, Hours After Disappearing Into Sewer Pipes

Jesse Hernandez, shown in a handout photo from the Los Angeles Fire Department, spent more than 12 hours in the city's sewer pipes.
Hernandez family/LAFD
Jesse Hernandez, shown in a handout photo from the Los Angeles Fire Department, spent more than 12 hours in the city's sewer pipes.

On Sunday, a 13-year-old boy on an Easter picnic with his family fell through a wooden plank in Los Angeles' Griffith Park — and plummeted 25 feet down, into the city's sewer and drainage pipe system.

He was swept away. A frantic overnight search began. And after more than 12 hours, he was located conscious and alive.

"It's with happy hearts that all Los Angeles city agencies are able to state that we have found Jesse Hernandez," Capt. Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department told reporters at Griffith Park on Monday morning, according to the local ABC affiliate.

The Associated Press reports that Jesse was playing with other children in an abandoned maintenance building in the park, when a wooden plank broke beneath his feet.

He fell about 25 feet into a sewer pipe, the LAFD says. Then he vanished.

Firefighters were called around 4:30 p.m. The first responders on the scene reported they could "only see water."

The situation was dire. Here's how the fire department describes the pipe system: "The pipes are 4 foot in diameter filled with liquid at varying depth (2 feet and deeper) moving at 15 MPH. This network of pipes parallel the LA River and cross under freeways."

And he could be anywhere.

"That place is a maze," Los Angeles Police Sgt. Bruno La Hoz said on Sunday night, according to the LA Times. "We don't know where the drain pipe goes to."

Jesse was somewhere in that maze. The environment was toxic. And his chances of survival were diminishing by the hour.

The city launched an all-out rescue effort. Experts from the sanitation department were called in. The fire department was joined by the city police, the state highway patrol, the Department of Water and Power, City Recreation and Parks, Park Rangers — all searching for any sign of the boy.

They identified 6,400 feet of pipes where he could be, and started analyzing, identifying likely "catch areas" where Jesse was likely to wind up after being swept away. They deployed third-party vendor cameras — "regularly used to inspect pipes for repair" — to float along the top of the water and crawl along the bottom.

As evening fell, the fire department pleaded with news helicopters to pull back from Griffith Park, saying they were disrupting operations.

One of the cameras in the pipes found markings that could have been made by hand, by a teenage boy trying to escape, NBC reports. That narrowed down the search area.

Shortly before dawn, sanitation workers lifted up a manhole cover less than a mile from where Jesse had disappeared.

They were prepared to send cameras in once again. Instead, "he was just right there," a sanitation worker who opened the manhole cover said.

He was 11 feet below them, crying out for help. They lowered a hose down to him and pulled him up, LA Sanitation Department Assistant Director Adel Hagekhalil said at a press conference. He asked for a cell phone to call his family.

The 13-year-old was sent to a hospital for decontamination and a medical evaluation. He has since been released, the Times reports.

It's a "beautiful outcome," Fire Department Captain Erik Scott says, according to the Times. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti calls it "a miracle."

The fire department thanked the Hernandez family "for their patience and optimism," and called the rescue an "unprecedented team effort" by city agencies.

And the city's sanitation department — not normally known for glamour or glory — is getting a moment in the spotlight, with the sanitation crews that searched overnight hailed as heroes, right alongside the firefighters and police.

"Never heard of Sanitation workers?" an association that represents California water professionals tweeted. "We've been here all along, maintaining California's sewer, storm drain and water resource recovery systems."

"We all love serving the public," the sanitation department tweeted.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

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