San Francisco Fire Department Performs Dramatic Surf Rescue

Norm Rooker reports on an intense surf rescue operation that led four SFFD members to receive top awards from the Firehouse Heroism & Community Service Awards program.


On Feb. 18, 2004, three Canadian men sailed a 30-foot sailboat up the California coast and directly into a confluence of factors, forces and errors that culminated in their craft being broached, capsized and ultimately destroyed off of San Francisco's Ocean Beach. The San Francisco Fire...


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Due to an unusually mild winter, the waters off Ocean Beach were a relatively balmy 53 degrees on Feb. 18. At about 2 P.M., Jack Thrush and his wife were in the San Francisco City Zoo parking lot when they spotted the boat sailing about a quarter-mile off shore. Thrush, an experienced sailor, notified the Coast Guard via his cell phone that he thought the vessel was in extreme danger and would not make it past the South Bar. The Coast Guard called him back to request additional information on the vessel, the number of people he thought might be on board, etc. Thrush replied he saw only two and that the Coast Guard should check it right away.

Eric Reid and Amos were on deck while the senior Reid was belowdecks on the cell phone. Eric Reid was at the helm, but not being a strong swimmer and concerned about the increasingly rough waters, had put on a tether harness. (A tether harness is a lightweight body harness with a six- to seven-foot line attached to the vessel so that if the wearer falls overboard, he can pull himself back on board or be retrieved by crew mates.) Though all three men had personal flotation devices (PFDs) on board, none were wearing them.

Eric Reid noted the winds were swinging around to the northwest and increasing in intensity. He and Amos decided to drop the main sail and switch to the storm sail (a small sail made out of much heavier sail fabric). While the two men wrestled with the stubborn rigging, the boat continued its forward momentum, but drifted to starboard, edging closer to the shore.

Sailboat in Peril

The first indication Randy Reid had that there was a problem was when his boat broached. Broaching is when a vessel is slammed by a wave or winds, causing it to round up into the wind and heel over on its side so severely that it takes on water, but is usually able to right itself. Reid made his way up to the deck as his son regained the helm and was attempting to steer the boat, powered only by the jib, back out to deeper water. As he turned the vessel, it was broached a second time. As it righted itself, his son attempted to steer it out through the waves toward open water and directly into the face of a large wave, which pitch-poled it end over end, capsizing and demasting it.

Randy Reid and Amos were thrown into the water. They found themselves in a trough between large waves with a set of waves between them and their boat. Neither man could make it back to the overturned vessel, so Reid swam over and grabbed onto Amos. To compound the seriousness of the situation, Amos' jacket was zipped all the way up and Reid was gripping it so tightly he was accidentally strangling him.

San Francisco's 911 center is staffed primarily by civilian call takers and for the police department, civilian dispatchers. The much-smaller fire department portion of the center is staffed by a team of six firefighter dispatchers, two lieutenants and a paramedic captain as the radio supervisor. Paramedic Captain Dirk Van Waart, the supervisor at the time of the incident, said, "I first became aware of the problem at 14:23, when one of the call takers stated she had an overturned boat in the surf and wanted to know the dispatch code. I asked her, where is it? She talked to the 911 caller and answered back, it's in the ocean."

Van Waart and the call taker were able to calm the caller enough to get an approximate location, Ocean Beach off of Sloat Boulevard and the Great Highway. In the meantime, the 911 lines were lighting up with multiple callers, all on cell phones, calling in the incident.

"I knew we had something big by the sheer number of calls," Van Waart said. "The call takers were scrambling to input the information and pass it on to us. We were getting varying numbers on the amount of people in the water."

At 2:24 P.M., the initial dispatch went out to Battalion Chiefs 8 and 9, Truck 19 and the surf rescue unit at Station 18, Engine 34 (home of the department's cliff rescue unit), Rescue Squad 2, Rescue Captain (Paramedic Supervisor) 4 and Medic 18 for a capsized boat off Ocean Beach with 12 to 15 people in the water.

Station 18 is what is known as a "big house," with an engine, truck and ambulance. It is also the location of the department's surf rescue vehicle, a Ford F150 with sand tires for driving on the beach. It carries ropes, portable lighting, two surf rescue boards, boogie boards, a stokes basket, spare wet suits and fins, and eight Peterson buoys (the main flotation/lifesaving device used by SFFD's rescue swimmers, it is a piece of vinyl-covered foam three feet long, five inches wide and four inches deep with a metal clip on one end and an eye and eight-foot tether with a loop on the other end). Station 18 is also one of five stations where regular members have to be surf-rescue qualified to remain at the house.