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