Photo Courtesy of the Family

The anniversary of the death of Sylmar teen Elias “Eli” Rodriguez came and went quietly last weekend as family members embarked on a somber trek to honor and remember him. 

They took a “silent walk,” from Cesar Chavez Academy in San Fernando — where Rodriguez went to school  — at around 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17, two years to the day that the 14-year-old may have fallen in, or may have attempted to take a shortcut through the Pacoima Wash that runs under Glenoaks Boulevard to his grandparent’s home. As rumors circulated, others went so far as to imply he could have been pushed into the wash.  

What is undisputed is the day Eli went missing the wash was filling quickly with water from a heavy rainstorm. Eli may not have known that even a small amount of water could quickly carry him away to the bottom of the wash, and its slick concrete floor could make it impossible to regain footing with water rushing through the wash with deadly speed and force.

When Eli did not arrive at his grandparent’s home or return to his own residence that night, his alarmed family sought help. They organized search groups made up of neighbors, they called police. The heavy rain made the search difficult. Over the next couple of days, news and other media outlets reported updates of the search with an anxious community who put up flyers and went door-to door collectively hoping Eli would be found safe.

Instead, his drowned body would be discovered days later by family members miles away, in the LA River in the Los Feliz area.

Doesn’t Look The Same

During their walk, to a nearby fence, the family attached a cross and rosary, and letters spelling out his name. They said a prayer and dropped flowers into the water from what is called “the bridge,” the sidewalk area that overlooks the Pacoima wash on Glenoaks, a very short distance from the school. Afterward the family drove to Los Feliz and stood along the LA River where Eli’s body was found.They said another prayer and dropped flowers at that location too. Although the rain had subsided, the fast moving water there quickly swallowed the brightly colored flowers under its current.

“The rain has been so strong. We saw trees that had been knocked down,” said Jesennia Vega, Rodriguez’s aunt. She said it didn’t look like the same spot they had seen two years ago.

Vega handled the difficult role of family spokeswoman during the search and eventual grim recovery of her nephew’s body. She and her family and extended family of friends were able to collectively organize the community who pulled together to search for the teen. 

Eli’s mother, Pahola Mascorro, was already battling cancer when he went missing. Now using a wheelchair, she continues her fight with the disease. However,  she made a public service announcement for the City of San Fernando’s Facebook page last year,  on the first anniversary of her son’s death, saying “I grew up across the street [from the wash] and never thought anything of the wash being a danger. It seemed pretty shallow, safe. It wasn’t until losing Eli that I have learned it is a system to move water very quickly. Something that seems like a little shallow river is still enough to take you down. And once you are down, it’s really no way out of there.”

Vega said she and her family will never know what happened on that day;  whether he fell in or tried to take a short cut through the wash looking for a faster route to get out of the pounding rain.

“We will never know exactly what happened,” Vega told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol. “We still have so many questions.”

The biggest one she has today is, “Why is it taking so long to make safety measures and widen the sidewalk area and put up some kind of barrier?”

She was speaking specifically about the bridge. And increasing the public’s safety there remains a slow process despite assertions that some repairs were made to the sections most in need. The sidewalk area that is dangerously hovering over the wash is against fast moving traffic on one side and the wash several feet down on the other.

“Two years ago we heard something was going to be done, and it hasn’t,” Vega said.

It doesn’t help that every time it rains “it’s a painful reminder,” Vega said. And the 2018-19 rainy season that began last Oct. 1 — which is following years of drought —  has felt relentless.

Through Feb. 15, downtown Los Angeles has measured 15.5 inches of downpour, which already surpasses the average for an entire year (14.93 inches). The Southland region — in fact, the state — has been swamped by what’s called an “atmospheric river condition,” storms with so much water in them they are practically “a river” in the sky. And a typical California rainy season can last well into March.

SF Council Considerations

At the San Fernando city council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19, a verbal presentation by representatives of the LA county Department of Public Works spoke of two different plans to increase the amount of public safety at the bridge that was built in 1953 and had its last retrofitting in 2000. It is considered by the county to be “functionally obsolete” due to the heavy amount of traffic that goes over the bridge on a daily basis, but is still considered safe to travel on.

Albert Wong told the council that one project would entail not only replacing the current fencing, but also widening the bridge — “today’s bridges are double sidewalks that are six feet wide” — but would include demolishing the current sidewalks and adding reinforcements before widening the bridge and adding barriers. That project was estimated to cost $554,000.

Another alternative, Wong said, would be to add an additional type of chainlink railing that Caltrans uses on freeway overpasses and bolt it to the existing bridge. The fence openings are a maximum one-inch wide, and could not only keep pedestrians safe but also be very difficult to throw objects through them.

The existing railing at the bridge is three feet tall. The added chain link railing would double the barrier’s height.

“It would be cheaper,” Wong said, estimating the second project’s cost at $100,000.

The cost of either project would be paid for by the City of San Fernando.

The council directed City officials to come back with a recommendation for one of the projects at the March 4 meeting, but sentiment was already leaning toward the second alternative.

“It’s incumbent upon us to address this matter as soon as humanly possible,” Mayor Joel Fajardo said afterward. 

“We are finally at the point that we have options before us. And I’m looking forward to giving staff direction to start the project,” added Vice Mayor Sylvia Ballin who later indicated that she was told at best, it could take an additional two years to complete the improvements. 

Vega wants action, not words. She points out that the sidewalk area is so narrow that it can’t easily accommodate a wheelchair or someone with a double stroller. Every day large groups of students use sidewalk area  going and coming from school. That kids can be seen stepping into the street when there is no room to walk along the sidewalk.

Vega wrote a post to her nephew on the anniversary of his death:

“My Angel… It has been 2 years that you left us, and these past weeks with the storms, have been nothing but a constant reminder of that terrible day. I often pray that no one will be put in danger around the river and washes during the storm. These areas are still dangerous and we are yet to see improvements. We will continue to raise awareness, and provide a portal for posting missing persons and updates. This week alone we were fortunate to have a positive outcome on one missing person, and an unfortunate outcome for another one. We may never get all of the answers we continue to search for, but hope our community can stay united as it once was when you brought us all together to search for you.  We miss you SO MUCH ELI, and we will never forget Love you Mijo.  #ourAngel#Securethewash#we will never forget.”