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‘Miraculous’: handprints lead rescuers to boy trapped for 12 hours in Los Angeles sewage system

A frantic overnight search of the toxic underground maze ended with a sanitation crew reeling up 13-year-old Jesse Hernandez

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 2:38am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 8:44pm

A 13-year-old boy who fell into a drainage pipe during a family Easter outing at a Los Angeles park was found alive on Monday after a frantic, 12-hour search of the underground system, authorities said.

The search for Jesse Hernandez began Sunday when the fire service received reports that the boy had fallen about eight metres down a pipe at the city’s sprawling Griffith Park.

Rescuers finally spotted the boy about 12 hours later after they saw images of handprints on a sewage pipe captured by a camera they had lowered down into the system of mazelike pipes to help the search.

“The first thing they heard was ‘Help,’” said Adel Hagekhalil, assistant general manager of the city’s sanitation department.

Jesse fell into the pipe after he and some other children were playing on wooden planks in an abandoned maintenance building, and one of the planks broke sending him falling into the 1.2-metre-wide pipe.

About 730 metres of pipe was been inspected before sanitation workers finally spotted the handprints less than 1.5km from where he disappeared. 

After that, a sanitation crew sent a team to the area where the handprints were seen and opened a manhole.

The crew lowered a hosepipe down to Jesse, who was about three metres deep, Hagekhalil said.

“He caught onto the hosepipe and was reeled back up and he was sat down on the floor.”

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The first thing Jesse wanted was a cellphone to call his family. A worker handed him his phone and Jesse called his mother.

“He was happy, the family was happy,” said Hagekhalil, who added that all the rescuers involved in the search were thrilled about the outcome.

“They never gave up hope,” he said. “They wanted to bring Jesse back to his family.”

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Brian Humphrey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said rescuers gave him immediate medical attention, including hosing him down to get rid of the sewage and cleaning out his eyes and nose with sterile saline.

Jessewas taken to a hospital for a full evaluation, and to be reunited with his family.

After an accident like Jesse’s, rescuers say the likelihood of a happy outcome diminishes by the hour because of the toxic environment of the sewage system.

In addition to the massive rescue effort involving more than 100 people, Humphrey credited Jesse for his survival. Not only did he survive getting swept through sewage moving at 25km/h, he managed to find a pocket of breathable air and hang on until he was found, authorities said.

“Any subterranean location, particularly one that involves waste, can produce toxic gases — methane, hydrogen sulphide - so breathable air is a key element,” Humphrey said. “The odds of someone falling into such a pipe and surviving are slim. The odds were not in his favour, and many would call it miraculous.”

He called Jesse “a resolute young man.”

“He has tremendous inner strength,” Humphrey said. “It’s obvious he’s not a quitter.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was among the many Angelinos closely watching the rescue efforts for Jesse. In a string of tweets , Garcetti praised rescuers and thanked the teen’s family for their “patience and optimism during this harrowing experience.”

“We’re keeping Jesse’s health and recovery in our thoughts today,” he said.