‘Thanks to Them and Thanks to God:' Crews Rescue Plumbing Contractor Trapped 13 Hours in 10-Foot Sewer Line

A plumbing contractor, who spent over 13 hours stuck 17 feet underground in a sewer line, on Wednesday expressed gratitude to the firefighters who rescued him. 

Crews worked into the night Tuesday, braving the cold and rain, to rescue Rogelio Ursa Esparza who was trapped in 10-foot sewer line in Oakland, finally freeing him early Wednesday morning.

"I don't have the words to thank them for saving me," the 42-year-old told NBC Bay Area. "Thanks to them and thanks to God."

Recalling the ordeal, Esparza admitted that the thought of not making it out alive did cross his mind.

"I thought of everything and, at the same time, nothing," said the father of two.

Doctors decided to keep Esparza, who said he was a little banged up but in good spirits, at Highland Hospital for an extra night for observation. 

"He's OK," Star Rooter & Plumbing supervisor Juan Coronado said of Esparza who was stuck in the mud overnight after falling into a sewer line when a piece of plywood broke. "He's 100 percent OK. He's ready to go back to work."

Esparza's saga began about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday. The plumber was working on a sewer line in front of a home on the 2300 block of 21st Avenue when the trench collapsed. Firefighters from the Oakland and Alameda County fire departments said the space he was stuck in was tight full of sand — burying him neck-deep — and construction material had fallen on top of him.

"It was really the plywood, the 4-by-4 bracing, that fell in on him that was across the back of his legs so he was trapped," Oakland Fire Department Deputy Chief Mark Hoffman said. "We couldn't lift him out without tearing his legs off, if you will."

To that, Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Lisa Baker added: "He was trapped in a hole within a hole. Every time we moved sand, more sand came on top of him. And then his feet were caught in the clay, so we had to keep going down to get his feet released."

The rescue occurred at 2 a.m. Wednesday. Baker said crews were worried about the wet weather hampering their efforts, but "luckily we were able to get him out before the rain came down hard."

Coronado thanked the firefighters, who helped keep his friend stay relaxed. Coronado stayed at the scene with Esparza the whole time, even when Esparza told him he felt like he might not come through the experience alive.

"We just be talking, talking," Coronado said, taking the great rescue in stride. "It's an accident. Things happen sometimes."

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has received three complaints about Star Rooter & Plumbing over the past five years, Cal/OSHA records show. The business was penalized for one accident for which they had to pay a $2,700 fine. 

Cal/OSHA is said to be investigating Tuesday's incident.

NBC Bay Area's Terry McSweeney and Rhea Mahbubani contributed to this report.

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