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Four die in heavy surf, including father and two children on Sonoma Coast

A 40-year-old Sonoma County man and his two young children died after being swept off the beach near Goat Rock on Sunday, their deaths among the four in a weekend of tragedy for two families who were celebrating the new year on the North Coast.

The father was recovered from the surf at Blind Beach by his wife with the help of bystanders and began CPR until rescue personnel arrived and took over, Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said.

Both of his children, a boy and a girl aged 4 and 7, were still missing as the sun set. The family had just moved to Petaluma from outside the area, California State Parks officials said.

Supervising Sonoma Coast Ranger Damien Jones said he heard the father at one point had a hold of one child’s hand before he lost his grasp and followed his children into the surf.

The water, Jones said, “was so churned up and just a foamy white mess, basically, so once people went in the water, it was very difficult to see where people were or what was happening.”

A day earlier, a 48-year-old Southern California man fell off the rocks into the crashing surf below the Mendocino Headlands.

The still unidentified man was in an extended family group snapping photos when he slipped, or most likely, was swept off the rocks near the base of the headlands as his horrified family watched, emergency personnel said.

He was later recovered during a multiagency rescue effort but had been in the foaming water for more than 45 minutes, officials said. Efforts to revive him on the beach were unsuccessful.

The back-to-back deaths, one of the worst spate of deaths in years, came during an especially perilous weekend on the coast, with a high surf advisory that began Friday amid waves of up to 20 feet.

Sunday’s drownings occurred in a brief gap between official high surf advisories — one that expired Sunday morning and another that was to begin Sunday night. But extreme danger persisted, observers said.

"Right now is a very active time in the ocean,“ National Weather Service Meteorologist David King said. “But even in the more quiet periods, we would still say, ’If you’re going into the ocean, use caution.’”

At Blind Beach, a mostly sandy expanse south of Goat Rock, the waves were large enough Sunday to push the surf across the sand almost to the bluffs, Baxman said.

The wife and mother in the family caught by the waves Sunday told State Park personnel that she and her family were either near the water’s edge or partway in the water when a wave came and knocked them over. But she was in the shallowest water and was able to get out.

A host of emergency personnel responded, including a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, State Park rangers and lifeguards, a Bodega Bay Fire rescue swimmer, California Fish and Wildlife, Monte Rio fire crews and helicopters from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol. Some tended to the 40-year-old man, while others conducted an extended search for the children. The only sign of them was a small jacket that washed ashore, Baxman said.

On Saturday, the Southern California man visiting Mendocino with family was in a low, rocky area exposed directly to the Pacific outside the mouth of Mendocino Bay when he was suddenly being plunged under the water off the rocky promontory, officials said.

State Park lifeguard Ean Miller happened to be right in town, where he had been patrolling and warning visitors about the dangerous conditions for several days, and was able to respond within about a minute of the 3:42 p.m. emergency call.

Arriving in his truck near a gate out to the bluffs, he was greeted by two of the man’s sons, one of whom jumped in his vehicle and guided him to the spot where frantic family members were trying to keep an eye out for the man, who already was unconscious.

Miller donned a wet suit and dove into the whirling, frigid water after catching sight of the victim. He was soon joined by four Mendocino Fire personnel on jet skis who had to break through the high surf to get out far enough to reach the search area. A phalanx of more than 20 firefighters and state park personnel on the bluffs aided the search and eventually spotted the man inside the bay, off Portuguese Beach, though it would take some effort to maintain sight of him amid the turbulent waves, officials said.

Eventually, one of the jet ski crews was able to bring the man ashore, but efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

“The real tragedy was the victim’s family watching as a loved one was lost to the ocean,” Mendocino Fire Capt. Sayre Statham said. “We watched a horrified family get broken apart. We luckily got to go home and hug our families. I’m not sure if there are words that can give peace to the family, our local responders, or to stop this from happening again.”

In Sonoma County, Jones said the search for the children would continue at first light Monday.

Baxman said he’d been at the Sonoma Coast on a call on Saturday, observed the high energy in the ocean, as well as what he said were “people playing chicken in the waves,” and told a companion, “Something’s going to happen.”

He also noted that it had been challenging for everyone involved to know that the mother and wife of those who perished had lost her family in an instant.

“This is a bad way to start the year,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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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