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Witnesses recount fatal Point Reyes cliff collapse

Bystanders told emergency personnel the ground gave way all at once with a terrifying and thunderous crash Saturday, hurling a San Francisco woman and her companion toward the beach 75 feet below amid tons of broken sandstone that had been part of the Point Reyes National Seashore’s Arch Rock.

Preschool teacher Nancy Blum, 58, died from injuries suffered in the collapse of the promontory, Marin County authorities said.

Her unidentified companion suffered serious injuries, though none was thought to be life-threatening, national seashore spokesman John Dell’Osso said.

Rescue personnel credited bystanders with helping to free the injured man’s trapped foot and lower leg from the rubble. In the meantime, the incoming tide was rising around him and the fog was closing in.

“I couldn’t have done it without them, that’s for sure,” paramedic Mark Burbank, part of a responding Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter crew, said Monday.

Blum and her friend were the only two hurt in the late Saturday afternoon incident, though fine weather and the first days of spring drew crowds of visitors to the coastal sanctuary. Many people had hiked the same trail out to the point that day. Five other people reportedly were with the pair atop the popular overlook when a 50-foot-long chunk of the cliff collapsed.

But all of them survived without injury and are believed to be among those who rendered aid to the victim while the professionals were en route, Marin Fire Capt. Bill Vierra said. “We needed to account for them all,” he said.

Days beforehand, a widening fissure had prompted the park to post warning signs in the area.

Dell’Osso said a published photo that showed about two dozen people on the point in the hours before it gave way “sent the hair on my neck straight up,” thinking of how much greater the tragedy might have been.

The vista point - no longer accessible because of the collapse - is now fenced off to hikers, Dell’Osso said.

Critics say it wasn’t soon enough, given what’s known about the vulnerability of the bluff trail that bridged the stone archway now buried in the rockslide.

But Dell’Osso said park management, working with what they knew, warned visitors of an increased hazard in the most practical way they could. Given the possibility of unforeseen trouble along almost any beach, bluff or forest trail, “we would have all our trails closed,” he said.

Dell’Osso also noted that an orange, webbed fence across the trail about 100 to 150 yards before the point where it disappears in the rubble had “a well-worn path” in the bushes and grass around it within 24 hours of being installed.

The 111-square-mile park along the Marin County coast has 150 miles of trails. But the most direct route to Arch Rock along Bear Valley Trail, an 8.4-mile round-trip, is the most popular, used by many of the ?2½ million people who visit the park every year, Dell’Osso said.

After seashore personnel learned last Thursday of a wide crack along the last bit of trail leading out to the overlook, signs were posted in the parking lot, along the trail route and at Arch Rock warning visitors of potential instability and structural weakness.

But Dell’Osso said it was not possible to know it would completely give way, though the fissure had reached 12 to 24 inches in width and ran about 40 feet out toward the point.

“I’ve never seen this kind of a collapse, as large as it is, happen,” he said.

On Saturday, sometime after Blum and her friend started out toward the overlook, the sandstone along the fissure and around the archway below sloughed off in great chunks, breaking into boulders and small pieces of rock that went crashing toward the beach about 75 feet below.

Blum’s companion landed along the surf line, his leg trapped in the rocks, said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Mahoney, who was aboard his department’s helicopter, Henry 1, and came to his aid a short time later.

Blum was found about 30 feet above him in bad condition, though rescue personnel were prevented from providing details because of medical confidentiality.

Bystanders, some up above and others who would have to have climbed down what remains of the overlook - now cut-off from the mainland trail - scrambled to get cell coverage to call 911 or offered comfort to the injured, rescue personnel said.

Marin Fire personnel responding to the first emergency call at 5:39 p.m. began making their way to Arch Rock on foot, while the Sonoma sheriff’s helicopter crew flew in, punching a hole through developing fog and managing to land on a beach to the north of the overlook. Burbank made his way to the injured hikers while the pilot and Mahoney reconfigured the helicopter gear for a long-line rescue.

They got Blum out first, transporting her to the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center within the seashore, where a REACH medical helicopter and medical crew stood by. She was declared dead at the scene.

Burbank, meanwhile, found that bystanders had put a warm covering over the male patient and were comforting him as he sat in the rising surf.

There was no time to get a pry bar, but Burbank figured if those assembled could lean in and push, with the right timing they could leverage the incoming waves to help loosen the rocks around him.

Finally freed, he was moved to higher ground just minutes before he would have been covered by water, Burbank and Mahoney said. ?The male patient was then packaged up and flown at the end of a long line to the visitor center, where he was transferred to the REACH aircraft for a flight to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

On Monday, the Presidio area preschool where Blum taught for 10 years was closed.

Director Marybeth Cody said it had been “a dreadful day,” though she felt sure the students and teachers would cope.

“It’s a very intimate school, which is why we’re so torn apart by this,” she said.

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

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