A Grim Reminder, With a Better Ending

April 3, 2018

By now you’ve probably seen or read reports about the 13-year-old boy in Los Angeles who, on Easter Sunday, fell into a sewer pipe. He was carried downstream and rescued—13 hours and three-quarters of a mile later—alive and unharmed.

The boy, Jesse Hernandez, was lucky, and so were the many rescue workers who tracked him through the sewer and were able, finally, to get him out. The story is a reminder, though, of how things can go wrong very quickly and what our responsibility might be to stop things like this from happening in the first place.

According to news reports, Jesse and some cousins were playing in LA’s Griffith Park during a family picnic. He went into an abandoned building—a maintenance shed, according to some reports—and stepped on a wooden plank, which broke. He fell 25 feet, ending up in a 4-foot-wide sewer pipe, and was carried along by the water, which was probably less than 2 feet deep and moving at about 15 miles an hour. Although he was eventually able to stand up and call for help, at that point no one could hear him and, as luck would have it, he’d lost his phone in the fall.

The search involved more than 100 people from several agencies, including the Los Angeles Fire and Police Departments, the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Water and Power, the Bureau of Sanitation, and the LA Park Ranger Division. They used camera inspection equipment—the same kind of thing used to look for leaks and damage in stormwater and sanitary sewer pipe—to look for Jesse, sending floating and crawling cameras through various sections of the sewer. They first spotted handprints and then other marks that showed they were on the right track. Eventually, they were able to spot him on camera—moving and talking—and remove a maintenance hatch to reach him.

About two years ago, another news story circulated about a family that was suing Radnor Township, PA, because of injuries their 12-year-old son had suffered in a 2011 accident. The two cases are different; that incident involved a stormwater culvert that, according to the lawsuit, was undersized and had been identified as being in need of safety improvements that were never carried out. It also had a far worse outcome. The boy fell into the culvert and was carried through a drainage pipe for about half a mile; he was rescued and survived but had severe brain damage as a result of oxygen deprivation.

At the time I mentioned an article published in the January/February 2006 issue of Stormwater, “Safety at Urban Stormwater Ponds,” that offered detailed advice for identifying and addressing common risks at ponds and other stormwater facilities. Although the focus was on ponds and detention structures, not sanitary sewer tunnels, it still has plenty of relevant information, not only about the design and construction of the facilities but also about how the public should be warned of the dangers.

It’s worth noting that Jesse and his cousins scaled a chain link fence in the LA park to reach the maintenance building. The Stormwater article had this to say on the subject: “Fences certainly discourage some people from accessing ponds. Fences lend themselves to the installation of warning signs…. On the other hand, many children or youths will view crossing a fence as a worthy and exciting challenge.”

I’m not sure what, realistically, could have been done differently in this case; it’s hard to stop determined teenagers from exploring in places where they know they shouldn’t be. Does your department or agency have a plan in place for dealing with situations like this one? Is deterrence something that’s discussed when planning, maintaining, or retiring various structures and facilities? Is this incident likely to spur those discussions? 

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines. 

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