Just after 1300hrs on a beautiful sun-swept Sunday afternoon in February, guests and staff at the Pelican Point Restaurant in Pismo Beach, Calif., watched helplessly as a sedan carrying a retired couple attempting to park their sedan plunged over a 125' cliff. The vehicle flipped over, bounced off its roof onto the rocks below and landed upright in the chilly, fender-deep water of the Pacific Ocean.
A serious incident such as this requires first responders to be well versed in cliff rescue operations; specialized, ongoing training is paramount to the success of these types of rescues. In this article, I_ll discuss the actions of first responders in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., to demonstrate just how prepared one must be to successfully conduct a difficult rescue operation.
Upon witnessing the accident, stunned restaurant employees called 911 while two patrons ran down a steep, nearby access stairway to get to the beach. Two police officers quickly joined the patrons, and all four waded into the knee-deep tide toward the car. The driver, Bulent Ezal, waved to them through the broken windshield as they approached. Upon reaching the vehicle, the patrons comforted Ezal while the two officers performed CPR on his wife of 56 years; unfortunately, she was not responsive and was pronounced dead at the scene by the paramedics.
Multiple Resource responSE
Under the best circumstances, a cliff rescue is extremely complex, but this particular rescue was even more difficult because it also involved auto extricationƒand the car was lying in the surf. So when the call came in at 1305hrs for the incident at Pelican Point, dispatch, also known as the Emergency Command Center (ECC), deployed engines, rescue units, the San Luis Obispo County Technical Rescue Team (TRT), an ambulance and a chief officer. Unlike most cliff rescues, which are commonly located in more remote areas, this incident was located in the center of Pismo Beach, with Highway 101 overlooking the scene. Within minutes of the accident, a crowd of hundreds formed to watch the rescue take place.
At 1308hrs, the first two engines arrived on scene from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), as well as its reserve firefighting resources funded by both San Luis Obispo County and the city of Pismo Beach. They were soon joined by the paramedic ambulance from the San Luis Ambulance Company.
Captains from the CAL FIRE engines took command immediately; Capt. Bill Grundler became the operations section chief and Capt. Robert Gorman the incident commander (IC). I arrived at 1316hrs, and as the chief officer on scene, I recognized that both men were capable of successfully organizing the incident; therefore, instead of taking over command, I provided them support and guidance. With the arrival of Police Commander Jeff Norton, a unified command structure was formed.
After quickly consulting a tide chart (standard equipment for coastal fire vehicles), commanders determined the tide was rising and would peak by 1606hrs, covering most of the car in frigid 53-degree F water. With the front wheels of the car already under water, the race was on to free the patient before he became hypothermic or drowned.
To begin the rescue, crews stationed at the top of the cliff set up a rigging system and started lowering tools and personnel. They first lowered a Power Hawk, a lightweight battery-powered extrication tool (affectionately referred to as the ˙chicken hawkÓ), in a Stokes litter, which would later be used to haul the patient and the deceased victim back up the cliff.
Once all tools were lowered, firefighters, with the assistance of the two police officers originally at the scene, began cutting the posts with the Hawk so they could remove the vehicle_s roof. Although they worked quickly, they had very little time to complete their task. The water level continued to rise, and to make matters worse, the first battery on the Power Hawk died and a new one had to be lowered down to the scene, which took several minutes.
Worried about the rising tide and the potential for a rogue wave, the IC ordered a rescue boat from the Port San Luis Harbor Authority, which was located just 2 miles up the coast, to stage itself out past the breakers. He also ordered a firefighter to don a dry suit and paddle out to the scene on a rescue board in case the patient or rescuers got pulled into the surf. To prevent the vehicle from being washed out into the ocean, rescuers anchored the car to surrounding rocks with a rope.
After cutting through the vehicle_s corner posts, firefighters were finally able to remove the roof at 1415hrs and place the driver first onto a backboard and then into the Stokes litter. With one firefighter stabilizing the Stokes basket by hanging below it, 10 firefighters began using a 3:1 mechanical advantage pulley system to raise the patient and the firefighter from the bottom of the cliff. Clearing the top of the cliff is always the most difficult part of any haul, so three firefighters tied off to help lift the patient over the top to safety. In all, five firefighters, two police officers and three ambulance paramedics worked the extrication scene, while more than 20 firefighters stationed themselves on top of the cliff to perform the hauling operation.
As the patient, who remained conscious the entire time, was taken to the hospital, the Sheriff_s Coroner made his way to the accident site, wading toward the vehicle in hip-deep water. With concern for the deceased woman_s dignity, the coroner and rescuers extricated her body from the vehicle and placed it in a body bag so she too could be safely raised up the cliff.
By the time both victims were removed from the scene, the tide was at its peak, and the sun was nearing the horizon, but personnel still needed to arrange for the vehicle_s removal from the water. They called a large tow truck to the scene that was able to maneuver its boom over the cliff. After receiving instruction from the truck operator, one firefighter rappelled down the cliff and hooked up the tow chain to the car_s axle. The truck operator then lowered a large cable and instructed the firefighter/rappeller to hook it to the chain. Finally, at 1650hrs, the operator raised the vehicle up and over the top of the cliff without damaging the cliff or the parking lot, thus preventing fuel and oil from spilling into the ocean.
Once the vehicle was lifted and secured, each rescuer was then raised up the cliff. The entire operationƒfrom the moment the vehicle went over the cliff to the moment all equipment was placed back into serviceƒtook 5 1?2 hours.
Post Traumatic Stress Prevention
Because of the intensity of the incident and the potential for responders to suffer post traumatic stress, I ordered a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing for the following day that involved those fire, police and ambulance personnel involved in the extrication. Although the rescuers felt good about their actions, they agreed it was helpful to come together to discuss their common experience.
Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced
Although this incident was a tragedy for the family involved, rescuers knew that the outcome could have been far worse. Had this incident occurred at a time when technical rescue techniques weren_t well known or incorporated into first responders_ training, the human and environmental tolls would have been much higher.
The key elements that allowed the overall rescue operation to go as smoothly as it did: training and interagency cooperation. Responding agencies included CAL FIRE/Pismo Beach, CAL FIRE/San Luis Obispo County, the Pismo Beach Police Department, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Coroner, the Port San Luis Harbor Patrol, members of the CAL FIRE TRT (which includes personnel from San Luis Obispo City Fire and Morro Bay City Fire) and the City Motors Tow Company.
Whether they were in the cold Pacific Ocean up to their hips or at the top of the cliff rigging the haul system, all responders on scene were thoroughly trained and highly accustomed to cooperating with other agencies; they were also well equipped for just such an incident.
Agencies located along coastlines should evaluate their ability to execute a cliff rescue, and if they discover they_re not prepared, should cooperatively invest in training and equipment to ready themselves for the inevitable.
Robert Lewinhas been a member of CAL FIRE for 27 years. He currently serves as a battalion chief and as the deputy incident commander for California Incident Command Team 9. He received a bachelor_s degree in political science from California Polytechnic State University and an associate degree in fire technology from Allan Hancock College.
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