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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Trainor noted the long-shore current was rapidly moving the debris field north along the beach. He directed Truck 19 to lower its aerial and reposition a half-mile up the beach. When the crew had completed relocating and getting set up, he had Truck 18 leapfrog farther up the beach beyond Truck 19 and set up again.

The members of Rescue Squad 2 arrived suited up and ready to go. They checked in with Trainor. Because the search area had spread out to almost a mile, the chief directed Rescue Squad's crew to a staging point at the water's edge approximately 300 yards south of the original rescue swimmers.

The Coast Guard helicopter had arrived and immediately initiated a search pattern above the sailboat's "point last seen" (PLS), and began working north, following the debris trail. The two Coast Guard motor lifeboats set up a search pattern just outside the waves, searching the waves and especially the many rip currents that could potentially drag Eric Reid out to sea.

Sailboat Torn to Pieces

"This boat didn't just sink," Liggins said. "When it went down, it was ground up along the bottom by the huge waves and broken up into pieces."

Onboard the Coast Guard helicopter was rescue swimmer Dennis Moyer. "We had a very quick launch and were on scene within three minutes of being airborne," he said. "The wind was buffeting as pretty hard...Instead of working at our normal search height of 30 feet above the waves, we were flying 50 feet up. It was an amazing view. There were multiple strong rips. At one point, I saw three of them running parallel to each other within a couple-hundred-yard stretch. The water was filled with flotsam and jetsam from the sunken vessel."

On shore, Firefighter/EMT Garret Lucier reported seeing a body in the water and directed the helicopter to the location. The aircrew lowered Moyer into the water. "They lowered me into the backside of a wave, which is our SOP," he said. "This puts the least amount of stress on the helicopter. I swam over and discovered a green jacket wrapped around a board. I pulled it off, detached myself from the hoist cable and swam the jacket into shore and gave it to the firefighters."

Moyer than swam back out to the debris and checked it out further. After ensuring there was nothing but debris in that section of water, Moyer reattached himself to the hoist cable and was raised back into the aircraft. In the meantime, the rescue swimmers on shore searched the jacket's pockets and found Eric Reid's wallet.

The search continued. The helicopter crew dropped a smoke float in the water to mark the major clump of debris in the water to make it easier for the wind-buffeted spotters on the tips of the fully extended aerials to track it. The crew also dropped a data-marker buoy to assist in tracking the sailboat's wreckage. Resembling an oversized lawn dart, a data marker buoy transmits a radio signal so currents and/or debris can be tracked by satellite.

Search efforts were suspended at sunset, just before 7 P.M., by the Coast Guard, which had taken over the role as lead agency for search operations. The following day, the two Canadian men flew home after being reassured that while search efforts would continue, there was little hope in finding Eric Reid alive.

"This call went well, in part, because we had a good team and followed our (surf rescue) SOPs, but there was also a good deal of luck involved," Liggins said. "We had an unusually strong group of swimmers on that day. We were also fortunate in that we had two battalion chiefs that understood surf rescue operations and know how to provide the overhead support"

Goudreau probably summed it up best: "This is what we do. This is what we are trained to do and that's exactly what we did."

(For their bravery in responding to this incident, Firefighter/Paramedic Jonathan Baxter, Firefighter/Paramedic Beth Goudreau, Firefighter/EMT Elizabeth Leahy and Firefighter/EMT Jason Woo were honored in the Firehouse Magazine Heroism & Community Service Awards program, featured in the April 2005 issue.)


San Francisco FD Surf Rescue Program

The San Francisco Fire Department provides fire, EMS and rescue services for the visitors and citizens of America's 14th-largest city plus Treasure Island and the San Francisco Airport. Located on the end of a peninsula and measuring seven by seven miles, 80% of its border, or 26 miles, is coastline.