Driver swims from burning car in coast cliff crash near Bodega Bay

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Resources For Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655

Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181

For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org

A Highway 1 motorist was rescued by a firefighter from the ocean early Tuesday after her car careened off a Bodega Bay cliff, hitting the rocks below and catching on fire.

The driver, the vehicle’s lone occupant, managed to crawl out a broken window and was swimming out into the sea before she was reached by a Bodega Bay firefighter who brought her back to shore, authorities said. She was flown by helicopter to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Investigators suspect the woman, a 54‑year‑old Santa Rosa resident, was attempting to kill herself, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said Tuesday.

“Indications show she accelerated off the cliff,” Crum said. “When she survived the crash it’s believed she swam out in the ocean in a further attempt to end her life.”

The woman received aid for injuries and was placed on a 72-hour mental health watch for evaluation, Crum said.

Just after 6 a.m. the Volkswagen Beetle launched over the cliff from a straight stretch of roadway just north of Salmon Creek. Callers reported seeing the overturned vehicle on fire about 100 feet down a cliff and a person swimming out to sea, according to an initial reports.

A dark column of smoke rose over the area.

Firefighters initially were dispatched to someone stuck in a vehicle, then a vehicle over the cliff, Bodega Bay Fire Capt. Dave Bynum said.

“That turned into a smoke check and it was all of the above,” he said.

A Bodega Bay engine crew arrived to find the car ablaze, on its roof on an outcropping of rocks in the water. The victim was about 50 to 70 yards offshore, treading water in the ocean, Bynum said.

The driver later told firefighters she’d crawled out one of the broken windows.

Bodega Bay Firefighter Heath Lesik, trained as a rescue swimmer, donned his gear and made his way down the steep cliff, then swam out and retrieved the woman.

With assistance, she was able to walk out of the surf and was given medical aid as firefighters prepared a ropes and harness system to get her up the cliff. But the Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter arrived, landed on the beach and flew her the nine‑minute trip by air into Santa Rosa.

Firefighters used hoses to extinguish the burning car, shooting water over the cliff edge, while tow trucks were called to pull the scorched Beetle up to the roadway.

A U.S. Coast Guard crew searched the area from the water in case anyone else had been in the car. No one was found and officials believed the driver was alone.

Volunteer firefighters from Bodega, and personnel from Gold Ridge fire, the Coast Guard, State Parks, the CHP and Monte Rio fire assisted in the rescue.

The Sonoma Coast has been an area known for suicides and attempted suicides for years. In April 2018, within two weeks, two people crashed off coast cliffs in what CHP officers believed were intentional acts by the drivers.

One month prior, the SUV of a Washington state family of eight was found at the bottom of a Highway 1 turnout on the Mendocino County coast. Investigators say that crash also was intentional. The remains of seven of the eight family members have been found.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

Resources For Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655

Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181

For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org

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