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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Fewell said, "We would get brief glimpses of our rescue swimmers. They had the two victims and seemed to be heading back to shore. The long-shore current was pulling them north. We were having to walk briskly up the beach to keep even with them. I suddenly realized that half of my only ambulance crew was in the water doing the rescue, so I requested the chief to special call three more ambulances, one for each victim and one to serve as a rehab or to take care of any of my people, if necessary. They appeared to be taking one heck of a beating out there." SFFD radio quickly dispatched Medics 32 and 29.

Back in the waves, Goudreau recalled, "My victim and I came up from under a wave and I looked back to see Elizabeth and her victim seemed to be stuck in a rip. She was swimming hard, but not making any progress. I turned to my guy and asked him if he was OK. He kept telling me he couldn't make it, but I just kept telling him to hold his breath each time a wave was about to roll over us. I had made it in through fifth and fourth set of waves by now. It seemed the closer to shore we got, the rougher the surf became.

"Jon Baxter caught up with me at about the third set of waves and asked if I needed any help with my guy. I told him no and suggested he check the wreckage for the third victim. He turned and dove through an oncoming wave. The waves were so big that when I found myself suddenly on my hands and knees on the bottom, I attempted to stand up to drag my guy in, only to be knocked down on my butt by the next wave."

Leahy said, "I was attempting to swim my guy in, but we seemed to be stuck in a rip or a mini-vortex. The dad was becoming increasingly anxious and rolled over and started flailing in the water in an attempt to help us break free. I kept asking him to roll back over onto his back so I could focus on getting us free. At some point he said, "Yeah, this isn't working," and rolled back over. We were eventually pushed out of the rip by the waves. I swam him in sort of riding the waves. Jason Woo caught up with us as we were nearing the shore and he helped me bring the father the rest of the way in."

Baxter swam past Leahy and Randy Reid out through increasingly debris-infested water. After swimming through the debris field and finding nothing, he turned back to shore to catch up with Goudreau to help her get Amos out of the surf and onto shore.

At Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco, the alert helicopter was spooling up to launch.

"I was proud of our people," Koermer said. "We strive to launch within 30 minutes of receiving an alert, but we had the fuel off-loaded and were on our way in under 18 minutes. By then Group (USCG Group San Francisco) had an information update from SFFD for us that we were only looking for one victim in the water."

Fewell, Liggins and several firefighter/EMTs ran over to help the victims emerge from the water and get them up the beach. The responders had brought backboards with them, so both victims were laid directly down on the boards. While the medics were stripping the victims out of their multiple layers of wet clothing, Liggins quickly interviewed Randy Reid.

"The father stated the kid had lashed himself to the boat," Liggins said. "I quickly pinned down that Eric had not tied himself to the boat, but had tethered himself in. I got a description of Eric, what he was wearing, the color of his hair, height, weight, that kind of stuff." Liggins relayed the information to the command post and it was in turn relayed to the incoming Coast Guard assets. At about this time, both motor lifeboats from the Coast Guard Boat Station Golden Gate were rounding Lands End Point enroute to the scene. On the beach, Liggins radioed for the surf rescue rig to come onto the sand to facilitate patient transportation.

Fewell said, "We had both patients down on backboards. Firefighter/EMT Maliga had made sure that M18's ALS (advanced life support) equipment had been brought down to the scene. Beth and Jon each took a patient and began the process of stripping them out of their wet clothes and doing a rapid assessment. Fortunately, both guys were neurologically intact, and aside from being wet and cold, appeared to have gotten away with just bumps and bruises." After a quick reassessment, Medic 32 transported both patients to UC Medical Center.

The four rescue swimmers turned around, retrieved their Peterson buoys and swim fins and reformed back at water's edge ready to rescue or recover Eric Reid if he was spotted. On the way back down, Goudreau and Leahy encountered the woman who had marked the spot of the boat's capsizing with a log on the beach. She tagged along with the two rescue swimmers and described what she had seen.