David Grieder, The Triplicate

The Crescent City Jetty remains a marvel for gawking tourists and a headache for rescue personnel.

"Subjects on the jetty with the waves crashing over them" is a police log entry so common it could be an incident category of its own for local law enforcement. Even so, reports of breakwater-wayfarers came in at higher volume during the recent holidays.

On Dec. 29, city police received three separate calls amounting to more than two dozen people who were asked to leave the jetty. These included a man from Canada seeking to escape the northern winter, as well as a family of 14 Iowans who apparently didn't know any better.

"They just don't have oceans, so they didn't understand," said Police Chief Ivan Minsal. "They just got a little too up close and personal."

On those calls, as well as another report on Sunday morning, sightseeing pedestrians removed themselves to a safer distance at police recommendation. Walking out onto the jetty is not a crime, said Minsal, and in fact it's still a popular destination for fishing during summer months when the waves aren't so hazardous.

Yet the hazard is real when the waves are crashing, as is usually the case during winter months. Call it a perfect storm, then, when the concurrent holidays bring in tourists who don't know the jetty's long history of injury and death to unfortunate onlookers.

"The amount of times we've been called down there is just unbelievable," said Terry McNamara, coordinator for the Del Norte Sheriff Office's Search and Rescue Team. Most recently, at least one person was badly injured in an incident just before Christmas. Minsal said a bystander was injured during the same struggle while trying to help.

"He got all knocked around, the good samaritan," he added.

The risk to responders is a large influence on the continued conversation about the structure built for Crescent City Harbor in 1957. In 2002, the SAR team attached a lifeline cable system to minimize additional peril for rescue personnel, some of whom have nearly been killed during rescue operations over the years. In summer 2014 that lifeline was refurbished and remains almost in complete working order, save for minor breakage near a compromised section of steel cable around the 3,400 foot mark, which McNamara attributes to vandalism.

Local officials struggle with the best solution for the jetty's challenges. Dispatching officers to verbally reprimand or caution persons at risk seems inefficient, but alternative warning systems don't seem to cut the mustard.

"Despite warning signs indicating the danger, people frequently walk onto the breakwater," says a June 2014 Memorandum of Understanding between Del Norte County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who own the jetty. Yet per the MOU, the county has law enforcement jurisdiction, which means city or county officials could in theory be empowered to pass an ordinance imposing more severe restrictions or penalties for adventurous visitors.

Del Norte County Supervisor David Finigan said he is not aware of any plans for the board to take action on considering such an ordinance in the near future. City manager Gene Palazzo said Crescent City officials are likewise not ambitious to lay down new laws controlling access.

"You can only help people so much," he said, citing existing signage warning the public of the jetty's hazards. "I don't know what a fine or something like that would do...We try to educate rather than litigate."

City leaders agreed that people can get so hypnotized by the crashing waves that they seem to disregard any concern for life or limb.

"People get a little mesmerized by the waves, by the grandeur and beauty," said Minsal.

"They don't think about the power that the ocean has," added Palazzo.

Pending additional funding and minor repair to the lifeline, the most realistic new development for jetty safety are likely to be more stern advisories near the entrance to the breakwater. U.S. Army Lt. Col. John K. Baker, who visited Crescent City in 2013 on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers district in San Francisco, proposed a sign with an up-to-date count noting how many days had passed since the most recent injury or fatality on the jetty.

In his 2013 proposal for jetty modifications, McNamara recommended a memorial plaque to "Those who have lost their lives or been severely injured on this structure."

The most recent fatality on the jetty was in 2008, when 61-year-old Onik Arian was killed by blunt head force trauma after waves swept him into the rocks while he was bird watching. McNamara said he could not detail a precise history of all the deaths and injuries related to the jetty over the years, though they are all too common.

Most of all, said McNamara, is the need to come up with sign wording that is both succinct and forbidding enough to convince people to avoid the siren-call of the Pacific at that particular location and instead enjoy similar yet safer views at, say, Brother Jonathan Point.

Reach David Grieder at dgrieder@triplicate.com

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