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Mother describes Sonoma Coast waves that swept family out to sea

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One minute the four beach-goers faced the ocean hand in hand, standing side by side as white foam swelled before crystalline gray waves.

The next minute they all were fighting for their lives, a family caught by a great wave that knocked them down and pulled one of them, a 7-year-old girl, out into the breakers.

The girl’s mother, Amanda Viola, a few moments before had snapped a photo of the four Friday afternoon at Goat Rock. But after the wave took her daughter, she rushed into the sea after her, only to find herself immediately pushed under the water, desperate for breath.

“I thought it was over,” Viola recalled Saturday. “I was going to lose my brother. I was going to lose my daughter, and I was going to die myself.”

However, the five survived, with Viola and her daughter Angeleek rescued by a state parks lifeguard, Aaron Pendergraft, who had witnessed the group’s troubles and rushed to their aid.

Rather than take the time to don a wet suit, Pendergraft went immediately to the little girl and later helped her mother and her swim slightly farther offshore to calmer waters.

The Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter Henry 1 then plucked the three from the ocean.

Viola, 25, of Clearlake said the experience showed her the need at such beaches to “be extra cautious because the ocean is very unpredictable and inconsistent.”

She acknowledged that a ranger earlier had stopped by their picnic table to warn them that the surf was particularly strong that day.

But she emphasized, contrary to some reports, that their party had no intention of swimming that day or even going into the water.

And she insisted that the four never turned their backs on the water as they stood together on the beach about 3 p.m.

The group simply was unprepared for so great a wave.

“They were thinking it may come up to their feet,” she said “But it came all the way up to me and I was 10 feet away (behind them).”

The four included Viola’s boyfriend, Chris Wolfe of Yuba City, his 10-year-old daughter Charity, Viola’s 15-year-old brother Anthony and 7-year-old Angeleek.

After the wave knocked them down, Wolfe was able to hoist his daughter and throw her onto dry sand. He later made it himself to the beach. Anthony Viola, meanwhile, grabbed his niece and tried to hold her up, only to have the child torn from him. He also managed to get back to dry land.

Viola somehow made it out to Pendergraft, who earlier had reached her daughter.

He told the mother and daughter that they needed to move farther offshore for safety’s sake and that a chopper would rescue them. Angeleek also sought to reassure her mother.

“She said, “Mommy, it’s going to be OK … I believe in God and God’s not going to let us die like this.”

Viola praised Pendergraft’s work.

“Aaron was just amazing,” she said. “I can’t thank him enough because my daughter’s alive because of him.”

Her brother was “beat up pretty bad” by the surf and has a bruised hip. And her daughter got water in her lungs, but that was pretty much the extent of their injuries.

Pendergraft, meanwhile, was flown to a hospital to be checked out for possible hypothermia.

But all his exertion didn’t keep him off the job for long.

“He was back at work today and doing very well,” Supervising State Park Ranger Damien Jones said Saturday night.

Jones recommended coast visitors look for the highest waterline that waves have reached on the beach that day and stay behind it.

“Generally,” he said, “if they’re on dry sand, they’re a whole lot safer than being closer to the water.’ Even then, they have to be mindful.”

Viola said she knows that over the years the ocean has swept away and drowned many people along North Coast beaches.

With Pendergraft’s help, she said, “luckily we weren’t in that statistic.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285.

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