Pacific Cliff Tragedy

Pacific Cliff Tragedy

A beach outing led to the death of a teen-age girl, injuries to three fire fighters, and hours of dangerous, difficult work by scores of rescuers.

This chain of events began about 1 p.m. Friday, March 27, when three teen-agers, Dan Pagel, 16, Darrel Shepherd, 16, and Kelley Standiford, 14, all of San Leandro, Calif., left a family picnic at Pescadero Beach for a walk along the beach toward Pomponio Beach, one of many beaches dotting the San Mateo County coastline about 30 miles south of San Francisco. They soon found themselves trapped against a cliff by the incoming tide.

While trying to climb to safety, the young girl slipped on the rocks and fell into the surf. Kelley was rescued by young Pagel and carried into a cliff cave. He revived her with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but she could not, or would not, go farther. They found that they were confined inside the cave by the rising surf. The Shepherd boy was stranded on a rock just outside the cave. They spent the next couple of hours in this predicament.

Hikers spread alarm

Finally Shepherd’s shouts were heard by some hikers on the cliffs some 200 feet overhead. The Sheriff’s Office was notified and a California Division of Forestry unit from nearby Pescadero Station responded about 2:30 p.m.

By using ropes. Division of Forestry’ men were able to raise young Pagel up out of the cave about 3 p.m. A forestry fire fighter, Larry Reager, was lowered by rope to the entrance of the cave, but by this time the rising surf was pounding into the cave entrance. Reager attempted to enter the cave but waves slammed him against the rocks several times. He could not reach the girl and she would not try to get to him. Reager injured three ribs and was taken later to San Mateo County Hospital for treatment.

The forestry crew chief requested the Half Moon Bay Fire Department’s rescue truck, which responded under the command of Chief James Biggs at 6:15 p.m. This unit positioned itself at the cliff’s edge and, using a frontmount winch and cable, lowered Captain A1 Sequera over the side. He was successful in rescuing the stranded Shepherd boy at approximately 8 p.m.

More help requested

Biggs, realizing the danger to the girl in the cave, requested skin divers from the Coast Guard, a Coast Guard helicopter, and the rescue squad from the Pacifica Fire Department, about 35 miles away. The Pacifica squad responded with four men under the command of Captain Joe Hill.

A member of the Sheriff’s volunteer undersea rescue team, Steven Green, happened by the scene. He donned his wet suit and volunteered to go over the cliff to see if he could get into the cave.

When the Pacifica rescue unit arrived, Hill descended the cliff, taking along a Stokes basket, blankets, and equipment needed to carry the girl to the top of the cliff. Hill descended to an 18-inch-wide ledge, approximately 15 feet above the water. After consultation with the diver, Hill requested one more man to assist on the cliffside. Sequera of the Half Moon Bay rescue unit descended to the ledge.

Two Knocked into water

As they made their way along the ledge toward the cave, a large wave struck the cliff, knocking Hill and Sequera into the water below. They were fastened to a safety rope, but they were in full turnout equipment and had a two-man raft for the diver, the Stokes basket and other equipment fastened to them, so they were unable to climb up the safety rope to the ledge. The two men were being pounded into the cliffs by waves in excess of 20 feet. All they could do was to get a breath between waves to survive.

A Pacifica fire fighter, David Pentelute,-saw the men go into the sea. He immediately hooked into the Pacifica rescue truck cable and was lowered into the sea by Engineer Joe Bonollo, who was operator of the squad. Pentelute caught both Hill and Sequera, pulled them to him and hooked their rescue belts into his.

Both men were unconscious by this time. Pentelute gave the order to take up the cable and successfully carried the two unconscious captains to the top of the cliff, some 200 feet straight up.

Pentelute descended again, hooked up to the diver and brought him to safety. Although both captains were suffering shock, emersion and multiple cuts and bruises, neither was seriously hurt. They were released from the hospital early the next day.

Biggs said, speaking of Pentelute’s actions, “This man undoubtedly saved the lives of these two men. Without him they would have been lost.”

Citations recommended

For his rescue of Hill and Sequera, Fire Fighter Pentelute has been recommended for heroism citations from both the Half Moon Bay and Pacifica Fire Departments.

Two airmen from the 41st Air Rescue Squadron at Hamilton Field were dropped into the sea by a Coast Guard helicopter and they swam into the cave to search for the girl. Because of the tide and heavy surf, they were unable to leave the cave for over four hours. Both were extremely fatigued and battered by the waves when they were finally able to leave the cave.

They found no trace of the missing girl. It was presumed that she may have been washed out of the cave and drowned.

At 7 a.m. the rescue operations was called off, some 18 hours after it began. The Coast Guard helicopter maintained a search for the girl’s body, but at this writing it had not been recovered.

Pacifica Tribune photo

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