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3 divers die in less than 24 hours on North Coast

Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 9:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 29, 2013 at 7:14 a.m.

Three abalone divers died in less than 24 hours this weekend, two in northern Sonoma County and one near Fort Bragg, Sonoma County sheriff's officials reported.

A 66-year-old retired Pacifica firefighter was found Saturday afternoon in the water off of Shell Beach. He was several feet below the surface, still wearing his weight belt, Sonoma County sheriff's Sgt. Ed Hoener said.

On Sunday morning, the victim was a 36-year-old San Francisco diver who had gotten caught in a rip tide off of Fisk Mill Cove near Gerstle Cove at Salt Point State Park. He was pulled to the beach by other divers but couldn't be revived.

Later Sunday morning, a diver was found dead under the water off MacKerricher State Park beach north of Fort Bragg. He was about 15 feet below the water and might have been snagged in rocks, requiring a deputy and paramedic to work in breaking surf to release him, Hoener said.

"The surf was absolutely pounding on us," said tactical flight officer and Sonoma County sheriff's Deputy Henri Boustany, who helped with the recovery.

The Sonoma County sheriff's helicopter crew flew all three calls, lifting two bodies from the water and one from the shoreline. They also carried one exhausted diver from the water while responding to Sunday morning's call at Fisk Mill Cove.

"It is the busiest we've been in that short amount of time with that many horrible outcomes," said 12-year sheriff's helicopter pilot Paul Bradley.

A very low tide Sunday morning brought swarms of abalone divers to beaches and coves up and down the North Coast. Six state parks officers and lifeguards were on duty along 40 miles of Sonoma County's coastline and aided several divers during the weekend.

"It's a busy season out on the coast, it's abalone season. We've got a lot of people out here today," said Hoener, who supervises the sheriff's helicopter and boating crews.

"But it's very dangerous along our coast," he said.

"People may be underestimating the force of the ocean and their ability to stay safe within the ocean."

Sunday's victim, whose name wasn't released, had been diving with a friend south of Fisk Mill Cove, near Gerstle Cove, in northern Sonoma County.

Just before 8 a.m. the man got into trouble.

"His buddy heard him yell for help as he was being pulled out by a rip tide," said Hoener.

Other divers in the area swam out to the man as he struggled in the water. They got him to rocks near shore but the effort took several minutes as they had to fight through the rip current to reach land.

They were performing CPR on the unconscious man when state parks lifeguard Aaron Pendergraft hiked down to the area, a popular but remote cove on his patrol route, Supervising Ranger Jeremy Stinson said. He radioed for help and performed CPR.

But the man didn't respond and was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived, Hoener said.

On Saturday afternoon, Cedric Collett, the Pacifica resident, was diving with a friend off of a Sea Ranch beach in northern Sonoma County.

Collett was a strong swimmer and in good physical shape, friends told deputies. When he hadn't resurfaced after several minutes, his friend went to a nearby home and called 911.

The sheriff's helicopter, state park lifeguards and deputies responded to the 1:15 p.m. call.

After spotting a drift line under the surface but no diver, the helicopter crew lowered state lifeguard Joe Stoffers into the water.

"The lifeguard swam down and located the gentleman about 15 feet down, with his weight belt on," said Hoener.

Sunday morning, not long after the Fisk Mill Cove call, the helicopter crew flew to Mendocino County to join the search for a male diver who had disappeared off of MacKerricher State Park beach, north of Fort Bragg.

A U.S. Coast Guard crew helping with the search located a float tube, often used by divers, about 250 yards from shore. There was no sign of a diver.

The sheriff's crew lowered rescue paramedic Scott Freedman into the water to look for the diver. Like Saturday's diver, this victim was about 15 feet under the surface, still wearing his weight belt, said Boustany, who also went into the water to help free the man.

It was about two hours since he'd been reported missing.

Bradley estimated more than 100 people were at the Fort Bragg beach with about 20 divers in the water as they were pulling the deceased diver from the water.

State parks lifeguard Tim Murphy Sunday said the constantly changing conditions and strong rip currents along the coast mean abalone divers need to study the water for several minutes before deciding if they should go in.

They also should have a game plan with their diving buddy in case of trouble and should always stay close together.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi. rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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