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DOWN UNDER : San Diego's Underground Creeps, Crawls, Works

January 04, 1988|PAUL OMUNDSON

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego underground--those countless miles of tunnels harboring power, sewer and telephone lines--serves as a unique environment for a handful of technicians who ensure that these services function smoothly. For eight hours a day, the vaults beneath the surface of the earth are their office.

These people don't have stories of gigantic alligators or killer rats roaming deep below us. But their tales do include some surprises:

For the past eight years, Ron Smith has been fishing out tires, dolls, hot water heaters, golf and tennis balls, and even a seven-foot boa constrictor from sewer lines 80 feet under the ground.

The 58-year-old maintenance supervisor keeps the six huge pumps operating at the city's Pump Station No. 2, located just west of Lindbergh Field on Harbor Drive. All local sewer lines pour into this plant, where Smith's crew begins preliminary waste-water screening and treatment before pumping the material to the Point Loma waste-water treatment facility, where solid waste is extracted from the liquid and trucked to Fiesta Island for drying.

"People kid me all the time about crawling around in the sewers," the ex-Navy metalsmith said. "But I don't mind a bit. "It's pretty clean down here and there's hardly an odor at all. It's not like sloshing around in the stuff that you flush down the toilet."

Above ground in the operations room, there's no clue whatsoever that the entire city's sewer lines converge here. It's only after walking down a seemingly endless flight of stairs to reach the bottom level that a faint smell tips off the plant's function. There a maze of concrete tunnels interlock with a series of 54-inch pipes that carry all the city's sewer water. Constant 40 m.p.h. winds down here can almost whip a shirt off a worker's back.

Roar of Pump Motors

"The wind comes from blowers that force cool air to circulate around the pumps and keep them from overheating," Smith shouted above the roar of pump motors.

Smith goes down into his labyrinth when there are problems with large debris clogging the pumps (which can happen several times a week). "First, we try to clear the blockage by reversing the pumps to flush the stuff out," he said. "But if that doesn't work, we'll crawl into the lines ourselves and do it manually. Plumber's test plugs give us the worst problems. They're about two feet long and four inches in diameter and can really get wedged in the pumps. Most of the time we end up cutting them out."

Items smaller than 30 inches go right through the pump and are scooped out of the system by screens.

"I see just about everything coming through here," he said. That includes goldfish, frogs, countless toys (which are on display in the plant's office above ground), a vast array of vegetables--especially carrots, celery and potatoes dumped from restaurants--and even an occasional boa constrictor. A few years ago his crew found a seven-foot boa.

"We took him out of the screen, washed him up, and he curled up over there in a corner and went to sleep," Smith said. "The next day, we called an animal control officer to take him away." A few times, workers have taken the boas home as pets.

The most bizarre find was a series of human fetuses Smith discovered coming through the system three years ago.

"I guess a doctor was doing abortions and flushed them down the toilet," he said. "We found six of them coming through during a two-week period. It really slowed us down because each time we had to call the police and the coroner and it ended up being a four-hour process to get all the proper officials involved and the paper work done."

Pump to Pump

Smith would much rather be plucking out the old automobile tires that often bounce back and forth from pump to pump.

When a large blockage occurs, Smith and his crew shut off the pumps between 2 and 6 a.m., the time of least usage, and go down to remove the material.

"Each one of these pumps move 50,000 gallons a minute," he said. "And when we turn them back on, all that material that's been just sitting in the city's sewer lines comes roaring through," he said.

Four years ago, Smith almost got caught in the deluge.

"I was down here working with three other men on the screens in front of the 54-inch pipes and somebody above accidentally opened the gates. I could hear the rush of water and within seconds it was up to our knees. Boy, did we move fast to jump on the wall ladder and climb out of here."

When San Diego Gas & Electric's Gary Frymiller descends into the underground, sweat pours from his brow as he passes the ancient roaring furnace in the company's steam power plant at the foot of Broadway. The structure dates back to 1911 when it was part of the San Diego Electrified Railroad Co.

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