Margaret Whittington was expecting company in an hour and a half. She had flowers on the table and a chicken baking in the oven. But what promised to be a pleasant evening soon became a long nightmare that's still not over.
While she was busy in the kitchen of her Sylmar cottage, her husband, Edward Wagner, went to fetch something from a two-story house next door that the couple uses as an office. They rent both the cottage and two-story house on Paddock Street.
As Wagner opened the door, gallons of raw sewage that had flowed from the toilet and through the house gushed over his feet into the back yard.
That was over two months ago.
Today, what Whittington initially thought was a just a clog in a sewer line has become clogged in bureaucracy.
Four city and county agencies, two property owners and their attorneys are shifting the blame, each saying someone else is responsible for correcting the problem. They even argue over what caused the sewage to back up: whether a section of the pipe was inadvertently removed during construction or whether it was legally capped.
Meanwhile, Whittington and Wagner have been banned from the two-story house by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. Bari Carrelli and Chris Apthorp, a couple who rent a third house on the same lot, have been banned from their house too.
It all began March 8.
"It was disgusting," Whittington said, grimacing as she recalled the course of events.
Sewage filled the ground-floor bathroom, flowed into a bedroom and closet, and oozed between walls into a utility room, she said. She took photographs to record the mess.
The two-story house was the only one of the three houses on the lot that flooded. The cottage, where Whittington and Wagner live, had no problems because its sewer was directly connected to Paddock Street.
The house rented by Carrelli and Apthorp didn't flood either, but every time they used water it flowed into the two-story house because the two buildings share a sewer line. All three buildings, and the lot, are owned by James Worley of Santa Barbara.
The day after the overflow, plumbers located a clog about 75 feet from the house. Suspecting a problem in the main sewer line under Paddock Street, Whittington called the city's Bureau of Sanitation. Work crews looked but could not find a clog anywhere.
Confused sanitation officials called the city's Bureau of Engineering to verify the sewer connections and were told that, according to city maps, all three buildings on the property were hooked up under Paddock Street, Whittington said.
Although no one knew it at the time, only the cottage hooked up to Paddock Street. Sanitation workers told Whittington that they could not help her because the clog was not on public property and had to be elsewhere. She called a plumber.
Using metal detectors to trace the direction of the plumbing snake, plumbers found that the sewer line did not connect the two-story house to Paddock Street. It traveled northeast, under a vacant lot next door and hooked up under San Fernando Road.
"I was horrified," Whittington said, because she already had a tense relationship with the vacant lot's owner, Abel Gonzalez. She had filed an unrelated suit against Gonzalez last year accusing him of operating a construction business on San Fernando Road in violation of city zoning laws.
Five days after the overflow, Whittington, Worley, Gonzalez and attorneys for both sides gathered to watch plumbers dig in search of the clog.
The plumbers had dug about five feet when raw sewage gushed into the hole, covering them. After they emptied the hole with buckets, the plumbers found the sheared end of a four-inch-wide clay sewer pipe. The rest of the pipe was missing.
"The one thing we didn't expect was that the pipe wouldn't be there--that it was deliberately removed," Whittington said. "We were operating on the assumption that it was an accident . . . that it had been crushed from the weight of the construction equipment."
Gonzalez's son, Albert, said he was as surprised as everyone else when he discovered the sewer pipe missing.
"I had no idea that happened," he said.
Albert Gonzalez's firm, AAA Construction Co., had begun preparing the vacant lot at 12539 San Fernando Road for a mini-mall, he said. He speculated that the pipe was removed during construction.
"The guy who drove the tractor did not bring it to my attention," he said.
As for the flood of sewage in Whittington's house, she and Albert Gonzalez offered different explanations for what caused the backup.
Albert Gonzalez said the missing length of sewer pipe had nothing to do with it and speculated that the backup formed because he had capped the sewer line last fall so he could build his mini-mall. City maps did not show that the line was connected to Whittington's house, he said.
"If I knew their sewer was hooked to our sewer, I would never have had it capped," Albert Gonzalez said.