Best Underground Workers

Metropolitan Sewer District's Crawl Crews

On a clear day in St. Louis, Chris Cacciatore can be found 18 feet beneath the city -- an oxygen mask strapped to his face, huge rubber boots covering his legs and a headset around his ears that links him to the partners on his team on the streets overhead. He slowly plods through giant 10-foot sewer pipes, checking to see that the aging brick structures are intact, as a 4-inch-deep stream of water moves around his feet.

At 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds, Cacciatore is the perfect size to drop through manholes and reach the pipes that link thousands of homes in the city of St. Louis to the lines that carry stormwater and sewage to Metropolitan Sewer District's treatment plants. The work can mean hours in the dark, damp and eerie tunnels that crisscross beneath the city's older neighborhoods, where virtually the only light comes from a handheld flashlight and the only view is of seemingly endless brick-lined passageways. Some days, Cacciatore is called on to creep on his hands and knees through the tiny egg-shaped passages that measure just 2 by 3 feet, inspecting the lines and looking for cracks. Even for him, that's a tight squeeze.

It can be a dirty job as a member of one of MSD's three so-called crawl crews -- a group of workers who regularly check on the older sections of the vast 8,700-mile underground network of pipes that make up the region's sewer system. But Cacciatore, 43, says the job suits him. He's been doing it for seven years.

"I like seeing what's underneath the streets," he says. "This doesn't bother me at all." But it's not an easy job -- or a particularly safe one. There's the "bad air" factor. "You've got to be really careful when you're down here," Cacciatore says. "You're always talking to the man on top. Sometimes there's an ammonia smell, and people throw things down the sewer all the time. You don't know what's in the water."

They only work underground on dry days, alternating their time on aboveground emergency crews after a bout of stormy weather. A good rain can send water rushing through the pipes at a current strong enough to knock a grown man off his feet, or fill the sewers so quickly that the water level in the pipes rises to the top. The weather may be clear in one part of the city and raining in another, and members of the crew on the street keep in close contact with a dispatcher to quickly radio a warning below if a rush of water is coming.

"We watch the weather forecast really carefully," says MSD spokesman Terry Briggs. "If it was raining up north and not where you were, we would want to make sure you got out of there. It's kind of like in a creek: If it rains upstream and you're downstream, you may not know it, and you don't have a lot of time to get out of the way of the water."

MSD has just three crawl teams, with five members each, and they qualify for a pay differential because of the inherent risks of the job. "There's a certain amount of danger to it," Briggs says. "You have to vent out all those gases in the sewer line -- we hook up a fan system and blow it out before they go down. Methane gas can accumulate, and if you go down there and are in there for an extended period of time, that can kill you."

The aging brick pipes pose another threat. In the early 1980s, for example, a crew went through such a line; two hours later, the pipe collapsed. Luckily, no one was inside at the time. "We didn't know that on the outside the dirt had washed away," Briggs says. "You have to have compaction for the bricks to stay in place. It's like if you pull a thread off your clothes -- if you keep unwinding the thread, the clothing will come apart. In a brick sewer, if there is no dirt on the outside, it won't hold its shape. All of the bricks can start to give way, and whatever is on top -- dirt or soil or asphalt -- will all fall into the sewer. There is nothing to hold it up."

The job isn't for everyone.

"You don't want anyone who is claustrophobic," Briggs says. "If they start to freak out -- you wouldn't want that. You need individuals physically strong enough to make the climb. And they are usually smaller in stature. Somebody that's 350 pounds and 6-foot-8 isn't going to make a good crawl person. You've got to fit through the manhole."

Brian Cunningham, 38, recently joined a crawl crew after working for two years at MSD and says the work gives a glimpse of the city most people don't know exist. "It's different," he says. "Before I started working here, I had no idea what was down here."

Pete Weigle, an MSD worker for nine years, says that contrary to urban legend, they don't run into alligators in the sewers. Rats, though, aren't unheard of. "You'd think you'd see a lot of rats, but you don't see that many. They're as scared of you as you are of them," he adds.

All kinds of things turn up in some of MSD's larger sewer lines -- from shopping carts to auto parts. There are tennis balls, basketballs, loose change and jewelry. And then there is the occasional body.

Earlier this year, after a passerby peered down into an open manhole in an alley in the 4300 block of Natural Bridge Road and saw something disturbing, police discovered that a body, by then badly decomposed, had been stuffed into the sewer. Members of one of MSD's crawl teams were called on to help retrieve it. Police say the man had been shot to death sometime in mid-October and his body disposed of down the manhole.

Another troubling discovery came in January, when members of a crawl team worked for hours to try to rescue four puppies that had apparently fallen and becomes trapped in a lateral sewer line in the 2200 block of Oregon Avenue. Workers dug a hole and worked through the night to retrieve the animals, but they were unable to save the 6-week-old puppies, who died.

MSD covers more than 520 square miles of the region, including the city and four-fifths of St. Louis County, but newer sewers are inspected with the use of cameras and other equipment. Only the older sewers in the city, which range from 24 inches to more than 10 feet in circumference, are inspected by a crawl team; the older pipes rely on workers to visually examine their condition. "A lot of guys say, 'I'm never going to want to do that,'" Briggs says. "It is not the most pleasant of tasks, but it is a crucial one."

-- Laura Higgins

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