Witness recalls panic after children swept to sea in Oregon
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Joanne Cornelius had just finished taking photos of the breathtaking waves and extreme high tide outside her home on the Oregon coast when a frantic woman pounded on her window and asked her to call 911.
Children had been washed out to sea by a wave, the woman said.
A family visiting from Portland had been storm-watching on the remote beach Saturday when a powerful wave caught them by surprise, sweeping the father, his 4-year-old son and his 7-year-old daughter into the surf.
A responding police officer pulled the girl from the waves, but she was pronounced dead at a hospital. The boy’s body has not been found and on Monday the U.S. Coast Guard discontinued the search. The father, Jeremy Stiles, 47, survived.
“It’s a dangerous beach. It’s a thing that people have to be aware of in winter at the beach at the Oregon coast. There’s dangerous waves and when the signs are up, people have a tendency to walk right by,” said Cornelius, who recalled seeing the family heading toward the beach a few minutes earlier as she returned from photographing the waves.
“It was tragic, just absolutely tragic.”
It’s a scenario that plays out all too often on the Oregon coast, a rugged and treacherous shoreline that is made more dangerous each winter by powerful storms and “sneaker waves” — fast-moving surges of water that materialize within seconds to swallow a seemingly dry beach with knee-deep water. In most areas, the beach is flanked by steep bluffs or rocky outcroppings that make it hard to run away.
On Saturday, a fierce storm blowing ashore was made even more dangerous because of an unusually high tide called a king tide that added 11 feet (3.35 meters) feet to the tops of already huge waves, said Rick Hudson, the emergency manager for the nearby town of Cannon Beach.
King tides occur when the sun and the moon line up and their combined gravity makes the tides much higher and much lower than normal. They can cause flooding and inundate normally dry beaches.
The waves at high tide on Saturday were 15 feet (4.5 meters) and swells further out were up to 40 feet (12 meters), with winds of about 25 mph (40 kph), the Coast Guard said. Sea spray and foam covered the entire beach, authorities said.
“When he walked out on that beach, he may have seen 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) of beach that wasn’t occupied by the highest level of surf and he may have thought it was safe, but the sneaker waves that come up can catch people off guard,” Hudson said of Stiles.
“If you have a 20-foot (6-meter) wave and you add the king tide, now you have a 30-foot (9-meter) wave.”
The coastal towns rely on the winter storm watchers for tourism and even advertise when the king tides will make the ocean even more spectacular. Beachside hotels offer storm-watching packages to attract customers during the off season. But authorities also post warnings on social media and on the beaches about the dangers and advise people to watch from a safe distance.
“People come out here because they want to be weather-watching, but they don’t realize how dangerous the weather can be and how fast it can change,” said Hudson. “You can be in raincoat, watching the beautiful storm happen, and all of a sudden you have a 30-foot (9-meter) wave and it swells up and goes all the way up to the maximum part of the beach — and you have nowhere to go.”
In January 2017, a man and his 3-year-old son were swept out to sea by a rogue wave in southern Oregon as his wife looked on helplessly. The man’s body was found the next month but the toddler’s body has never been recovered.
On Saturday, Cornelius watched helplessly from her home.
After she called 911 , she was patched through to the Coast Guard and directed them to the Falcon Cove area, a rugged and rocky stretch of beach.
Then, she saw a grim procession: The girl’s body brought up the path and to an ambulance, followed by her father, in shock and distraught as he was bundled into a car with warming blankets.
A woman with the group was in hysterics, with blood on her face, Cornelius said.
“I tried to get her to go into my house to warm up, but she refused. She was wearing no shoes and she was soaking wet,” Cornelius said.
The State Police, the agency investigating the drownings, released no further details Monday. The officer with the Manzanita Police Department who pulled the 7-year-old girl from the water declined interview requests.