Howard Kuljian and his Eureka family were out for a walk on a damp, overcast morning at Big Lagoon beach in Humboldt County, playing fetch with their dog Fran as 10-foot surf churned the water just feet away like a washing machine.
Signs near the beach warned of "sneaker waves," the kind that suddenly roar ashore.
Kuljian tossed a stick that took the dog down to the water's edge, and in an instant, authorities said, a wave swallowed it, setting off a nightmarish scramble.
"Everything kind of snowballed from there," Coast Guard Lt. Bernie Garrigan said.
Kuljian's 16-year-old son, Gregory, ran to save the dog, only to be captured by the surging surf himself. Kuljian, 54, followed, and then his wife, Mary Scott, 57. On shore, their 18-year-old daughter, Olivia, and Gregory's girlfriend could only watch.
Both parents' bodies were later recovered, but the boy -- presumed dead -- is still missing off the beach just south of Orick.
The dog eventually made it back to shore.
News of Saturday's tragedy shocked many in the Eureka and Arcata communities.
Kuljian was a fire ecologist at Six Rivers National Forest, a second career and dream job he got after earning a graduate degree in 2010 from Humboldt State University's wildland fire laboratory.
His master's thesis on sudden oak death was "cutting edge" and published widely, said Morgan Varner, a former Humboldt State professor now with Mississippi State University's forestry department.
"He was the first researcher to quantify the real threat not only for sudden oak death but also the threat over the West with mountain pine beetles," Varner said.
Scott, a nurse, worked for the county health department and was a devoted member of the Humboldt Community Breast Health Project.
The couple were avid runners and outdoors people. Their deaths leave a large hole in the Arcata community, Varner said.