Jetty rescue calls costly, dangerous, but walking on breakwater is not unlawful

Days after waves swept a Santa Cruz man off Crescent City's north jetty, four teenagers ignored warning signs, ventured beyond the locked gate and made it to the end only to find themselves stranded.

When a call came over the scanner at about 1:45 p.m. Thursday, the teens were on a piling with waves coming over the top of the jetty. Crescent City police sped to the area, the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office deployed a boat, Search and Rescue volunteers began gearing up and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was put on standby.

The teens made it off the jetty under their own steam with no injuries. But they faced a cadre of angry emergency personnel.

"I chewed their ass from one end to another," said Del Norte County Search and Rescue Coordinator Terry McNamara, who along with other emergency personnel rushed to the jetty thinking they would have to conduct their second water rescue in less than a week. "We were preparing to deploy. We had people getting their directions and we were getting people geared up. We had a sheriff's boat in the water. They were very lucky."

According to the Crescent City Police Department, officers have responded to calls of people on the mile-long jetty 18 times in the last two years. Two of those instances resulted in people having to be rescued.

The most recent rescue occurred last Saturday when a man whose name was not released ventured beyond the locked gate and the warning signs to take photos. He was clinging to the rocks with waves coming down on top of him when rescuers on jet skis pulled him from the water. He was taken to Sutter Coast Hospital with minor injuries.

Not everyone is so lucky. In 2008 waves swept Sutter Coast Hospital doctor Onik Arian, 61, off the jetty and onto the rocks below. Arian, who had been participating in the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, died of blunt force head trauma.

Despite being the ones to respond to distress calls when people get in over their heads on the jetty,the Crescent City Police Department and the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office are unable to cite or fine those who ignore the warning signs because it is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In order to be able to do that, an agreement would need to be in place between the county, the city and the Corps of Engineers, said Crescent City Police Chief Doug Plack.

"It is basically an awkward position to be in for the simple reason that we cannot enforce it or write any type of citations," Plack said. "The only thing we really can do is just tell people to get off. If they don't get off they've been advised of the danger."

To be able to issue citations to people who walk out onto the jetty, local authorities would have to request a concurrent jurisdiction agreement with the Corps of Engineers, said spokesman Brandon Beach.

The Corps of Engineers currently has such agreements at lakes Mendocino and Sonoma, which are owned and operated by the Corps. The Corps also has a concurrent jurisdiction agreement at the Bay Model in Sausalito, Beach said.

"At this point we don't have an agreement in the local area of Crescent City," Beach said. "But that doesn't mean that we couldn't have one. The locals would have to request it and then that request would go up the chain of command. The Corps would be acting through the Secretary of the Army to grant concurrent jurisdiction."

Any request for such an agreement for Crescent City's north jetty would have to come from both the Crescent City Council and the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, Plack said. He added that his officers respond in tandem with sheriff's officers to calls of people on the jetty.

Crescent City could probably create an ordinance that would establish a fee for emergency response to the jetty as a way of recouping some of the costs of initiating a rescue, Plack said. The Crescent City Council is currently considering establishing fees for emergency response to false alarms, 911 hang-ups, structure fires and motor vehicle accidents.

"Taxpayers pay for this," Plack said, referring to the personnel and equipment, including helicopters, that get called out during jetty rescue operations. "There's got to be a way for cities and counties to recoup the cost of rescuing individuals whether it's off the jetty or by placing themselves in a situation where they get over their head."

In addition to the financial cost of a jetty rescue is the risk and danger to emergency personnel who respond, said sheriff's Commander Bill Steven.

"You're not just risking your life, you're risking other people's lives," Steven said. "When you see those signs and you weigh your own personal risk, consider the risk of other people also."

McNamara said he saw this first-hand when he responded to the rescue mission for Arian in 2008. In addition to dry suits and personal flotation devices, McNamara and other volunteers anchored themselves to the breakwater using their climbing harnesses to keep from being swept off the jetty. When he took a wave, McNamara hunkered down and held his hand over his mouth to avoid taking any water in.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "It still forced water in my nose. We would have been washed off if it wasn't for our safety gear."

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