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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Goudreau and Leahy, designated as the A team rescue swimmers, grabbed Peterson buoys and ran across the parking lot.

Sailors Spotted from Shore

"A woman informed me that she had marked a spot on the beach with a log to show where the boat was when it went down," Leahy said. "I jumped a low chain-link fence and ran down the beach. Halfway down, I heard Beth yell that she was right behind me. It was a great feeling. I knew we were good to go as a team.

"On the way down, I heard Lieutenant Kevin Hickey from T19 yelling my name and saying, "Can you see them? They're right there!" He was pointing to the two victims in the water. I spotted them and decided to enter the water a little south of them so the long-shore current would help push us to them."

Trainor directed Liggins to join Fewell on the beach and establish Beach Operations. He and Woo followed the two A team swimmers down the beach to Fewell at the water's edge. Baxter hopped out of the back of Medic 18, grabbed a Peterson buoy and ran down to join Liggins and Woo. Liggins and Woo trotted down to Fewell and were quickly joined by Baxter.

Liggins scanned the waves, then turned back to shore and noted that Truck 19 had its aerial up, but not extended. He radioed up for the company to extend the aerial to its full length and to make sure the observer was tethered in due to the high winds. Kojimoto had his driver position Truck 18 several hundred yards north of Truck 19 and once there, directed his three remaining crew members to put the aerial up and extend it up all the way.

"Captain Liggins directed Jason and me to enter the water to assist Beth and Elizabeth," Baxter said. "The water was crashing in on us. I lost Jason almost right away. We were having to penetrate these flat, hard wave fronts that were 10 to 15 feet high. No foam or anything to duck under, you had to just dive and drive through them. The sets were really tight, maybe three seconds apart. You had just enough time to come up and take one breath before diving into the next wave...It required a very forceful, high exertion swim to get out to the victims."

Woo said, "The waves were pretty nasty. They weren't coming straight on. They were angling in from both the left and right and were so big that even while duck diving under them, you were just getting pounded."

While the four rescue swimmers were battling their way out to the two Canadian men, who were between the fifth and sixth set of waves, the capsized sailboat and the third Canadian man disappeared beneath the waves.

The only rescue swimmers on scene were the six from Station 18. Rescue Squad 2 with its four swimmers was still enroute. Trainor special called Rescue Squad 1 from downtown to provide a pool of fresh swimmers if needed and also have a large enough swimming rapid intervention team if that was needed as well.

The first two rescue swimmers were making their way through the fifth set of breakers. Goudreau said, "Elizabeth swam past me just before we got to the victims. She went for the younger-looking of the two. Her guy was puking in the water and my guy was struggling to stay afloat. He was bobbing up and down in the water. As I grabbed him, he sank about two feet below the surface, but I had him by the shoulder, so I was able to go under with him and secure the Peterson buoy under both his arms.

"I looked over and Elizabeth had her patient hooked up to her Peterson as well. We were in this trough, a valley between these huge waves, and you couldn't see anything. Elizabeth's patient was saying something about his son was still on the boat. My guy was just limp, but awake...I asked Elizabeth if we should swim our victims out beyond the waves and wait to be picked up by the Coast Guard or swim them into shore. She said bring them in, so I turned, grabbed my guy by the Peterson I had attached to him and started in for shore."

Leahy said, "It was so surreal. I told my victim my name and that we were going to swim in backwards to keep our eyes on the waves. He was initially very cooperative and relaxed, but became increasingly agitated. At some point, he said his son was still tethered to the boat."