Surfers are rescued from powerful tsunami currents

Early Saturday morning, authorities along the California coast asked people to stay away from the beach and out of the water as powerful tsunami waves from a volcanic eruption near the Pacific island of Tonga swept down the west coast.

Although most followed the warnings, some surfers, anglers and beachgoers ignored them – which led to emergency rescue in dangerous waters by teams of firefighters.

At a popular beach in San Francisco, rescue swimmers braved undulating waves and strong currents Saturday afternoon to rescue two surfers who had challenged nature to a duel – and lost.

Members of a San Francisco Fire Department patrol spotted a surfer about 300 feet from the shore waving his hands and calling for help around 6 p.m. 3 p.m., said Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter, a spokesman for the department. Rescue swimmers swam out to help him, but conditions were so bad that they found it safer to take him to a private sailboat nearby instead of carrying him back to the dry land.

“Instead of letting the lifeguards swim back to shore, which is what we usually do, the current was so aggressive in Ocean Beach that we had to take them to China Beach” about 1½ miles away, “Baxter said.

“We asked everyone not to go in the water,” he said. “We took a very aggressive and proactive approach that started early this morning with several city platforms pushing out, ‘do not go in the water’.”

The tsunami caused minimal damage along the California coast, including to the Port of Santa Cruz, where a parking lot and streets flooded. But it was a busy day for some First Aiders in the Bay Area.

A surfer was rescued in Ocean Beach after his surfboard broke in the middle about 200 yards from shore. The effort required help from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, a lifeboat and San Francisco Fire Department rescue swimmers, Baxter said.

The San Francisco fire department also helped more than two dozen beachgoers who had waded into knee-deep water or less but were in potentially dangerous positions, Baxter said.

“We go out and escort them out of the water so they don’t become a victim,” he said. “We do not dive into the surf, we are able to get them before they are pulled out to sea.”

At San Gregorio Beach in San Mateo County, first aiders from Cal Fire CZU San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit rescued two people after being swept into the water while fishing Saturday afternoon, said Cecile Juliette, a unit spokeswoman. Both anglers were taken to the hospital – one by helicopter and the other by land transport – and were in stable condition.

At Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, two people wearing life jackets were swept off a jetty and into the water early Saturday morning, Juliette said. They had ignored the authorities’ calls for them to evacuate the area.

“They were able to get back on the cliff and it was better for them to go down the jetty to get back to the beach than for them to get back in the water to be rescued” by the harbor patrol, Juliette said.

Baxter said San Mateo, Marin and Alameda counties saw “some aggressive wave patterns” and that there were reports of damaged piers in those areas, but county fire department spokesmen said they were not called for emergency rescue.

From early Saturday night, beaches across the state were mostly reopened, though authorities continued to ask people to stay out of the water. There were no known reports of deaths or serious injuries as a result of the California storm surge, which Baxter largely wrote down in an effort to warn people not to go to sea while the tsunami hit the coast.

“We probably would have seen many more rescues in the waterways if it were not for the modest,” he said.

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