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Mendocino Coast lifeguard Ean Miller bestowed with highest honor after two daring rescues

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A Mendocino Coast state park lifeguard who put himself at grave risk during two daring rescues in late 2018 has been awarded a Medal of Valor by the United States Lifesaving Association — the highest honor in the field.

Because of Ean Miller’s courage and sacrifice “there are two people walking around today who wouldn’t be walking around,” his supervisor, North Coast State Parks Lifeguards Chief Joe Stoffers, said in presenting the award during a ceremony at Russian Gulch State Park earlier this month.

One of them attended the Jan. 11 fête, a Laytonville man whose friend, a first-time surfer from New York, died after the two were overcome by powerful waves at the mouth of Big River.

“We were pretty emotional, both of us,” Miller recalled Thursday. “We just had a long hug in front of everyone when he gave his little speech.”

“We don’t get thanked very often,” Miller added. “It’s pretty cool that he was there.”

The Medal of Valor is reserved for lifeguards who voluntarily risk their own lives “to an extraordinary degree” in saving or attempting to save the life of another, according to the lifeguard association.

“This is a special award for us,” Stoffers told those who attended the presentation, “because on the panel are lifeguards and ex-lifeguards who know the job, and they know what a standard lifeguard does, and they know what is above and beyond what a standard lifeguard does, and they recognize that.”

Miller, 30, has spent his life on the water and began as a junior lifeguard in San Diego at age 8, though he conceded there was at least one day he just wanted to surf. He began working as a lifeguard at age 16 and has worked on the Mendocino Coast for nearly two years, joining what was then a newly formed program to cover 60 miles of coast.

He earned plaudits for saves made two and a half weeks apart on a coast known for rugged cliffs and treacherous waters.

In the initial case, Miller was the first to arrive at Big River on the south side of the Mendocino Headlands, where California friends were taking their East Coast buddy out on the waves for his first time. They had perhaps underestimated what State Parks Mendocino Sector Superintendent Loren Rex described as “a massive storm swell.”

While one watched from the bluffs, three went into the water and almost immediately found themselves in trouble. The waves rose up to 15 feet, with conditions affected by high tide, the curving coastline and the heavy, rain-fed river flow, Rex said at the time.

One man reached the rocky ledges on the headlands and managed to climb to safety. But two others, including the New York man, got sucked into the rocky caves at the base of the headlands and were repeatedly battered against the rocks. Both of their surfboards were broken up in the churning waves.

Miller went in after those men, running barefoot from his truck over the rocky bluffs and “hurling himself off the cliff into the water and the waves,” Rex said during the award presentation. The lifeguard was slammed by the waves over and over but still managed to reach the survivor, who was conscious, Rex said.

He and his friend were in separate a caverns, being tossed against the rocks with “logs the size of trees...bouncing around as well,” Miller recalled. “That was definitely a situation I’d never been in before.”

Using a flotation buoy, Miller maneuvered the survivor away from the rocks toward open water and a waiting jet ski that took the man ashore.

Miller hitched a ride with another jet ski but, because of the huge waves, it had to drop him beneath the Highway 1 bridge over the river. He ran about a half mile back along the cliff so he could go after the other surfer, though the 25-year-old already was seen face down in the water for an extended period.

Miller was able to swim him out of the cove and to a jet ski. Attempts by first responders to resuscitate weren’t successful. He was later identified as William Guthrie-Goss.

A few weeks later, Miller rescued a woman from heavy surf near Westport after she went out in the dark on a kayak.

Miller sped up to the spot in the rain and found her companion on the beach and suffering from hypothermia. He swam out into the ocean with only a headlamp and a glow stick to find the woman — and did.

“I don’t know what the odds are of you finding her,” Rex said to Miller during the award presentation.

He brought her ashore and began life-saving measures until paramedics were at the scene. Long story short, Rex said, she was “clutched from death and brought back.”

Miller is the 61st person to win the medal since the USLA began bestowing awards for heroism in 1987.

He is also the sixth to be so honored for life-saving efforts on the North Coast, where a small band of lifeguards in Sonoma and Mendocino counties patrols miles of rugged coastline, confronting big waves, rocks and hazards unique to the region.

Other local recipients include Sonoma Coast State Parks Supervising Lifeguard Tim Murphy, 1996; Sonoma Coast State Beach Lifeguard Aaron Pendergraft, 2016; and former Sonoma Coast lifeguards Nate Buck, 2009, Brit Horn, 2005, Don Straub, 1992, and David Carter, 1991.

Buck, who worked with Miller in San Diego, said he had tried for years to persuade his friend to move north when Rex and Stoffers, a longtime Sonoma Coast lifeguard, decided to develop a new lifeguard program on the Mendocino Coast in 2017.

“He’s basically like an Olympic-caliber athlete with a lifetime of ocean experience,” Buck said.

California State Parks Southern Field Division Chief Brian Ketterer presented Miller with the medal and recalled recruiting Miller as rookie lifeguard in San Diego. He also told his own story of a single day on the North Coast that told him it was not the place he wanted to work.

“This coastal area around us is treacherous even to the most seasoned lifeguard. It is not for the faint of heart,” Ketterer said. “The ocean is different, which makes entering the water in this area to save another exceptionally difficult.”

“On average more than 150 people drown in ocean waters in California each year, and more than 50,000 are rescued by professionals like Ean,” he said. “However, Ean’s rescues (were) complicated by the fact that in this place, in the wintertime wet and cold conditions, with rocks and bone-crushing obstacles, and done with only the simple tools — a wet suit, headlamp — equipment which hasn’t evolved in more than a hundred years, and with a mindset and determination to care for another living soul. That is what separates us from other people.”

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the age at which Ean Miller began junior lifeguards.

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