Anthony Skeens, The Triplicate

Overnight stay on beach rocks avoided

Nine rescuers responding to help a 27-year-old Del Norte woman who fell about 20 feet off a cliff south of Enderts Beach became stranded on a ledge Friday evening after the U.S. Coast Guard decided against airlifting them.

Around 7:30 p.m. a call went out to first responders about a woman who had fallen off a cliff, suffering severe injuries.

The responders - three Crescent City volunteer firefighters, three EMTs, a sheriff's deputy with a ride-along and a park ranger - hiked down the trail along Nickel Creek past a primitive campsite and through a rocky tunnel along the coastline to get to the woman.

As they arrived the tide was rising, prompting a firefighter to take the woman, who was found on rocks in the surf, to higher ground. She suffered multiple fractures and a possible concussion.

"The tide came in and made it to the point where we wouldn't be able to walk out," said Del Norte Ambulance EMT Matthew Sutton. "(The woman) was definitely in a position where she needed care."

By then, the Del Norte Search and Rescue Team was unable to reach the party to remove the woman, said SAR Coordinator Terry McNamara.

Around 7:45 p.m., McNamara said he had Del Norte Dispatch call the Coast Guard to request an airlift assist, which it declined. McNamara and other responders worked the phones trying Mercy Life, the California Highway Patrol, and CalFire for air support, to no avail.

"None of them could come," said McNamara.

Around 9 p.m., he called a higher-ranking member of the Coast Guard to explain, "we are going to lose this lady unless we get her out of here."

A Coast Guard helicopter arrived around 9:30 p.m. to hoist the injured woman and her male companion off the ledge. The woman was transported to Sutter Coast Hospital and later flown to UC Davis Medical Center. She seemed to be coping well with her injuries, said Sutton, who escorted her to the airport for her flight to UC Davis. The Coast Guard refused to pick up the stranded responders - some of whom weren't properly clothed to ensure their warmth through the night until the tide lowered so they could walk out. The refusal was based on the risk involved, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela Boehland on Monday.

After subsequent requests for the helicopter to drop supplies to the responders, the Coast Guard agreed, McNamara said.

Coast Guard Lt. Bernie Garrigan cited California search and rescue policy in stating the first call from Del Norte dispatch was treated as an advisory call making notification of the injured woman. It wasn't until McNamara made the call himself around 9 p.m. that it was deemed an official request, Garrigan said. He said he could not comment on whether the Coast Guard denied a dispatch request for a helicopter, or whether it took numerous requests for the Coast Guard to deliver supplies for the responders.

"We pulled that lady off the beach and saved her life and ultimately that's the most important part," said Garrigan.

Around the same time as the Coast Guard rescued the woman, a helicopter out of Sonoma County manned by the Henry One Flight Crew -- county personnel trained to perform nighttime long-line rescues -- departed for a two-hour, 15-minute flight to rescue the Del Norte responders. That arrangement was made by Cindy Henderson, Del Norte's emergency services manager.

Stopping to refuel in Arcata, the helicopter arrived around 11:45 p.m. and began short-hauling the responders to Endert's Beach Overlook, where they were all grounded by about midnight, said Fire Chief Steve Wakefield.

Had the Coast Guard responded to the inital request for aid, it could have arrived to help the woman as well as responders from their perch while there was still daylight, Wakefield said.

"The whole situation should have been over by nine o'clock," said Wakefield.

If Henry One hadn't responded, the responders would have waited until low tide to walk out, which wouldn't have been the first time a Search and Rescue team was delayed in returning from an operation, McNamara said.

"Fortunately we were able to get to a position that was adequately safe and secure," said Sutton. "Of course we were still exposed to the elements. No one was in imminent danger as a group."

He said he was grateful that Sonoma's Henry One team was able to respond and get everyone off the rock.

All of the responders were fine after spending some time in ambulances warming up, Wakefield said.

"They were very, very cold when they were finally rescued by Sonoma County," said Wakefield.

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