Friday, Sept. 5, 2003 | 11:08 a.m.
Steven Brooks said all he saw at first was water churning through the wash that passes under Eastern Avenue at Pebble Road.
As the hair salon owner took a second look, "all of a sudden out of nowhere I seen an arm coming out," he said.
It was Manuel Meza's arm. Meza had been sleeping under Eastern when a sudden downpour sent rain runoff roaring down the wash about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
Brooks, who said he has rescued people from Las Vegas flash floods before, didn't think twice.
He scrambled down the bank to where the tunnels that run under Eastern empty into the wash, then he scuttled across the metal gates to reach Meza. At least six tunnels run under Eastern, each with its own gate, some of which were open and blocking the route to safety.
Brooks said he had to swing one of the gates shut -- "I pushed with all my might against the water" -- and then tied it off to keep it from swinging open. That cleared a path to Meza, and Brooks helped him out of the tunnel and onto the grating, where the two slowly inched toward solid ground.
Police and firefighters arrived just as the two were safe. As some congratulated Brooks on his actions, others asked Meza if anyone else was in the tunnel. He said no. Rescue crews, who were busy responding to other calls for help in the area, used thermal imaging cameras to check inside the tunnels anyway.
Meza, who is homeless, literally lost his shirt in the flood, as well as his pants and a radio. He stood in his green underwear clutching a small bag with the remains of his clothes inside, explaining that he had been in Las Vegas for about a month, looking for work. He said he was from San Antonio and didn't find what he expected here. He wanted to go home.
At the end of the day, not only was he rescued from the waters, he found a way home. Brooks, who owns the hair salon Diva Studios, said he took him shopping for pants, shoes and shirts -- and underwear.
"We got him four new pairs of white ones," said Brooks. After the shopping spree, Meza was taken to a Catholic charity, which provided Meza with a flight home to Texas, Brooks said.
Police said Meza was one of several homeless men who live under Eastern. What appeared to be a tattered green and yellow tarp clung to a rock in the rushing waters, and at least six plastic shopping carts also were in the wash. Fred Carter, who surveyed the scene after the rescue, lives along Pebble, which runs parallel to the section of wash. He said he had seen the homeless people in the wash frequently and figured they lived there because "they have nowhere else to go."
Advocates for the homeless in Las Vegas say there is always a danger that a homeless person will drown during any significant rainfall because many homeless people camp in the washes, culverts and drainage tunnels throughout the area.
In one case a few years ago, a man was killed.
On Aug. 22 and 23, 1995, thunderstorms dumped nearly three-quarters of an inch of rain each day. A homeless man died after being swept from box culverts beneath Koval Lane by the rushing runoff in the Flamingo Wash.
Mary Manning contributed to this story.