CASTRO VALLEY -- Choking back tears, the janitor at the now-notorious Valley Springs Manor on Thursday poured out his harrowing tale of several days desperately trying to feed, bathe and keep safe 19 elderly and mentally ill residents stranded when the rest of the workforce walked off.
Hired as a janitor just three weeks earlier -- and never paid -- Miguel Alvarez and the friend who helped him get the job spent sleepless nights running up and down the hall as wearying seniors screamed for food, medicine, emergency treatment and help cleaning up soiled undergarments.
"I felt bad for them so I helped them," said the 33-year-old San Leandro resident, who had no experience or training caring for elders. "I felt ... who's just going to leave these people? Just leave them for damn near dead?"
Now the home is the subject of a criminal investigation into elder abuse charges. Also facing scrutiny are state officials who allowed residents to keep living in the home after ordering it closed.
Confused by the chaos that began shortly after he arrived, Alvarez said he just tried to do what seemed right for ailing residents he had grown friendly with.
"I just tried to hold on strong for them, and that's all I could do," he said. "I wouldn't want nobody to leave my parents or my grandparents."
The last days overwhelmed him, especially as residents appeared to weaken and asked for medicine he had no authority to give them. One mentally-ill resident wandered off and went missing during the hectic lunch hour Friday.
Unsanitary conditions and ambulance calls mounted until a fire captain realized Saturday afternoon there had been no professional caregivers since state officials ordered the home's license revoked two days earlier.
Alvarez worked alongside his childhood friend, Maurice Rowland, a cook who had referred Alvarez to a custodial job opening three weeks earlier. In the final days before paramedics evacuated the last 14 residents, they took turns sleeping on a couch and chair in the home's TV room.
A stay-at-home dad, Alvarez said he took the job on Oct. 7 hoping to supplement his wife's income as the Christmas season approached. But he never got a time card and instead kept note of his hours on a tiny piece of paper in his wallet. His mom moved to his apartment from Stockton to take care of his 4-year-old son as he worked days that lasted 12 hours -- and eventually 24.
As the state threatened for months to revoke the home's license over a host of unfixed safety and staffing violations, he was hired just before an administrator walked off without notice. The workforce kept dwindling, with some caretakers returning to the facility late last week only to angrily demand missing paychecks. An interim supervisor who often slept in a backroom at the home repeatedly promised relief and payment until he, too, disappeared and stopped answering calls, Alvarez said.
The state Department of Social Services officials who posted the closure notice Oct. 24 also were nowhere to be found as the weekend began, said the two friends who stayed on.
"I thought they'd be there the whole entire time until the last resident was gone," said Rowland, the cook. "I didn't think they would just come and do their regular 9-to-5 shift."
Rowland, a Hayward resident, worked there for three months. He saw his last paycheck on Oct. 18 but kept working because "from what I understood, we were supposed to work all the way until all the residents were gone."
Alvarez said his child-rearing experience helped him as he and Rowland were suddenly thrust into taking care of the entire beleaguered facility by themselves.
"I just know from having a son how to clean up people, changing their diapers," Alvarez said. "I was the person who was bathing them, cleaning them, and that was not my job." He added, "I'm just a janitor."
A lawyer for the home's embattled owner, Hilda Manuel, disputed some of the accounts given by Alvarez and Rowland and said the two workers were not hired to be simply a cook and a janitor.
"People who are in a residential care facility are not there for medical treatment. It's not like a nursing home," said attorney Orrin Grover. "They may need help dressing ... brushing their teeth, washing their face, combing their hair. That isn't anything that requires special training."
He also said the home appears to have met the state's legal requirements for one worker for every eight to 12 residents. Grover acknowledged there had been some paycheck problems in the past week but said the company planned to pay all the workers what they were owed.
The Alameda County Sheriff's Office is probing elder abuse charges at the home, and local law enforcement officials had been scheduled to meet Thursday with health care investigators from the FBI and California Department of Justice.
Alvarez and Rowland enjoyed a short respite from last week's chaos but then, on Wednesday, went searching for the missing resident, Edmund Bascom, who called himself Goldfinger and disappeared on their watch.
"Me and Maurice rode over there on our bikes" to look for the missing man near the San Leandro BART station, where he was last seen, Alvarez said. "We know how he looks and stuff."