Dramatic rescue at Goat Rock State Beach on Sonoma Coast

A Lake County family who ventured too close to the pounding surf at Goat Rock State Beach survived a harrowing encounter with the powerful Pacific Ocean on Friday, thanks in large part to a state lifeguard who leaped in to make a rescue that would land him briefly in the hospital with hypothermia.

Five family members initially ran into trouble shortly after 3 p.m., when they were knocked over by a rushing wave, emergency responders said.

But two, Amanda Viola, 25, of Clearlake and her 7-year-old daughter, were then dragged away by a second wave in such heavy surf they could not get back ashore, Supervising State Park Ranger Damien Jones said.

State Parks lifeguard Aaron Pendergraft, who was patrolling the beach near Jenner when he saw disaster unfolding, was soon out to sea with them, diving in without so much as donning a wetsuit and clutching the pair for 10 or 15 minutes a quarter-mile offshore while they awaited helicopter rescue, Jones and others said.

A 15-year-old boy who also was pulled offshore with the second wave managed to get to safety with the aid of some bystanders, Jones said.

It appeared he had some type of back injury, and he was transported by ambulance to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said.

A 10-year-old girl who had been knocked down also got to safety, assisted in part by her father, Jones said.

The ocean, which poses a risk on any day, was especially threatening Friday, thanks to particularly large, powerful waves, officials said.

A high-surf advisory was in effect, and predictions of swells up to 40 feet were enough to lure Santa Rosa resident Kate Wilson out to the coast for a look after finishing a river cleanup in Monte Rio.

Wilson said she pulled into the parking lot and was soon alarmed to realize a family with kids were in bathing suits with towels and sand toys apparently ready for water play.

It was foggy and cold, but the waves made her nervous, and she said as much to two of the kids, including a young girl who clearly was resistant to the idea of getting into the water.

But Wilson had walked away, headed up the beach, by the time she heard sirens and realized that very same family was in distress.

“I just knew it was going to be them,” she said. “I could see their heads bobbing out there. Thank God they’re alive.”

“Those waves,” she added, “were just relentless. They were huge. They were supposed to be 40 feet, but they weren’t, but they were probably 15 feet.”

Jones said Pendergraft, a 16-year veteran, had been in his truck when he saw what was clearly an emergency. He radioed that he was going in, and took a flotation device with him that helped keep the trio afloat while they awaited help, Jones said.

He said a second lifeguard arrived and was attempting to make it past the surf to help but was prevented by the same waves that impeded Pendergraft’s efforts to bring his rescue subjects ashore. Instead, he took them farther away from shore to avoid the pounding surf, Jones said.

The Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter, Henry 1, arrived after 10 or 15 minutes and sent a long line and a paramedic down to bring each person from the water to safety, beginning with the 7-year-old who, like her mother and the teenage boy, were taken by ambulance to Memorial Hospital. Their relationship was not clear. No information about their conditions was available late Friday.

Pendergraft was taken by helicopter to Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Medical Center and later released, Jones said. Baxman said he had slight hypothermia, like the others.

“We’re just all very happy that nobody died,” Baxman said. “They’re very lucky.”

“It was a very heroic effort by Pendergraft, certainly weighing his safety versus the safety of the victims, when he’s making the decision whether to wear the wet suit or not,” Jones said. “It’s certainly a very applause-worthy effort on Mr. Pendergraft’s part.”

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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