Woodland Hills homeowners demanded a crackdown on open excavation holes Friday as a neighbor recovered from injuries suffered in a fall down a 30-foot-deep construction shaft a few steps from his front door.
Residents complained that dozens of similarly dangerous "caisson pits," generally about 20 inches in diameter, are scattered over construction sites in the hills south of Ventura Boulevard, where a building boom is taking place.
The holes are drilled in the hillsides so that steel beams can be implanted in the steep terrain to support homes.
Ronald Costello, 22, an Ensenada Drive resident, slipped into a hole in a vacant lot next to his home Thursday night. The 5-foot, 11-inch, 125-pound man was trapped until Los Angeles firefighters lowered an oxygen hose and a shoulder sling that they used to pull him out.
The hole is about five feet from the street. Costello slid into it while showing his aunt, Joan Deneve, the wreckage of a drilling machine that had tumbled down the hill earlier in the day while boring another caisson hole. The falling drill had ripped out electric, phone and cable television lines connected to Costello's home, which Deneve owns.
"The ground just gave way beneath me," said Costello, who suffered bruises, cuts and sprains. "Dirt just kept falling on top of me. I thought I'd be buried alive."
Deneve, a nurse, tried unsuccessfully to rescue Costello with a garden hose as firefighters were summoned. Costello, who landed in mud at the bottom of the hole, had sunk to his hips when rescuers arrived. After he was freed, he was treated at Northridge Hospital Medical Center and released.
At midday Friday, the hole was only partly covered by scrap lumber scavenged by firefighters. Down the hill, where several other holes appeared to be similarly covered, drill operators Ken Patrick and Scott McTear struggled to retrieve their 15-ton machine with a crane.
"I've been after the contractor to cover these holes several times," Patrick said. "The owner and the contractor were here all day yesterday and didn't cover the holes."
Neither the owner nor the contractor was on hand Friday morning as neighborhood residents walked through the unfenced construction site, peered down the holes and inspected the wrecked $300,000 drill, however. City building inspectors were also absent.
Robert Ayers, manager of the Department of Building and Safety's Valley office, said Friday afternoon that officials were unaware of the accident. He promised to send an investigator to the scene before nightfall.
Supervising Inspector Darell Brassfield said the owners or those in charge of the construction site could face misdemeanor charges if found to have an unfenced or improperly covered hole wider than six inches or deeper than three feet.
Brassfield said most builders quickly comply with orders to protect holes with wood coverings held down by a layer of dirt. The city can send its own crews to cover holes that are ignored by developers or property owners, he said.
City officials could not immediately identify the developers of the Woodland Hills site, whom Patrick described as partners in an Inglewood development company. Los Angeles County property tax records did not list the lot under the street address provided by the Fire Department.
Neighbors said they were angry over the construction site shafts.
"There have been holes only covered with thin plywood on a lot up on Rosario Road for three months," said Gordon Murley, vice president of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization. "You complain to the city and they don't respond. They don't come out and make people put up fences."
Murley said the Building and Safety Department has been involved in a series of recent construction project mix-ups in Woodland Hills.
He said that has prompted him to suggest to city officials that the city attorney's office take charge of the department. "It should be put into receivership because of its lack of accountability," Murley said.
Homeowner G. Roy Mulliner, who said he lives near a Canoga Avenue construction site that has several unsecured, 50-foot-deep holes, characterized the situation as "an accident waiting to happen."
"There are no night lights, no warning barricades, no fences. . . . It's a joke, it's pathetic," he said. "The department is built to protect the developers, not the community," he said, referring to the Building and Safety Department. "The builders are raping us."