The darkness is punctured by a solitary 100-watt light bulb hanging overhead, but the interlopers trek on, ignoring the sweltering 110-degree heat. Suddenly, they stop: in front of them lies a crudely drawn sign welcoming them to Hell.
No, it's not a clip from Steven Spielberg's latest horror film, but a scene re-enacted several times a month by students at the University of California, Los Angeles. The students are three stories below ground, exploring UCLA's steam tunnels, a labyrinthine network of cement conduits that links most of the major buildings on campus.
Across town, in an abandoned passageway last used more than 30 years ago by the Pacific Electric Red Car subway system, water drips from the ceiling and small stalactites grow from cracks in the cement.
Last used for its original purpose in 1955, the PE tunnel now lies in the shadow of downtown's skyscrapers as a monument to Los Angeles' first and, so far, only foray into underground rail transit. This tunnel is in disrepair, and is home to no more than a trespassing transient or the occasional rodent.
Both tunnels are part of a Los Angeles underground, neither political nor social, but one which presents a seldom-seen view of the city's inner workings. There are more than 250 tunnels on record in the city, most of them common pedestrian tunnels or equestrian pathways, but there are also those with legendary histories and unexpected uses.
"We have conveyor tunnels, prisoner tunnels, private tunnels--all sorts of tunnels," said Morton Rosen, a civil engineer in the city's Department of Public Works. Los Angeles' tunnels exist not as protection against inclement weather, as is the case back East, Rosen said, but mainly as subterranean arteries.
Of 270 tunnels on file in the city's Public Works department, 221 are pedestrian tunnels, 14 are equestrian tunnels, 15 are vehicular in nature and 20 are classified as "miscellaneous."
In the miscellaneous file is one tunnel in Bel-Air Estates that used to run beneath a public street but now lies under private property. The owners have since closed off one end and turned the tunnel into a climatically controlled wine cellar.
Other tunnels run between the Hall of Administration and Hall of Records, and between the Hall of Justice and the Criminal Courts Building in the Civic Center. The latter passageway is used to transport criminals from the jail to a warren of courtrooms. And a massive network of tunnels connects many of the Civic Center's state and federal offices, affording bureaucrats the luxury of wandering from building to building without surfacing.
Not listed in the city's "official" printout are UCLA's steam plant tunnels. Those unfamiliar with "the tunnels" at UCLA, as they are knowingly called, might stop or even turn back at the nefarious greeting inside one of the passages. But tunnel veterans continue, knowing what lies in store beyond this hot stretch of cables, wires and pipes.
Just as suddenly as the intense heat begins, it diminishes, and a few angular turns later, the students find themselves in a huge cavern--the dank insides of a walled-in bridge below the center of campus. Some break out a bottle of beer and begin the party, one of many celebrated here in the past 50 years.
"They may say it's dangerous, but I've been down there so many times I probably know the system better than the maintenance workers," one 22-year-old student boasted. "We're not malicious, we just go down to have a good party every now and then."
That type of sentiment is a source of concern for the university, said Jess Romero, coordinator of the UCLA Insurance and Risk Management department, because students venturing into the tunnels leave the school open to possible lawsuits if any injuries are incurred.
Officially, students caught in the tunnels are subject to trespassing charges, but first-time offenders are given little more than an admonishment. Theoretically, recidivists are turned over to the city attorney's office for prosecution, said University of California Police Department Sgt. Eugene Christiansen, who added that this had never happened during his tenure.
Giant Easel for Graffiti
UCLA's tunnel system also acts as a giant easel for graffiti artists, who have turned the underground passages into a sort of latter-day Lascaux caves. The painted beasts of Cro-Magnon man are replaced in the school's tunnels primarily with Greek letter names of the school's fraternities and sororities, but other signatures dating back to the '40s have been scrawled on the cement walls, too.
Despite nearby fault lines, Los Angeles' tunnels are among the safest places to be in the event of a temblor, said Phil Kaainoa, a structural engineer with the Earthquake Safety Division of the city's Building and Safety Commission.