‘At your own risk’: Spate of deaths reminds that the North Coast’s stunning beauty is offset by a dark side
Following three fatal incidents on Davenport Beach, Panther State Beach and Laguna Creek Beach in the span of eight days, first responders implore North Coast beachgoers to stay out of the water and off the rocks.
Three separate missing-person searches ended in body recovery missions last week after 26-year-old David Guzman, 30-year-old Conrad Miltko and 17-year-old Cash Ebright were swept up by Davenport’s treacherous coastal conditions over the course of eight days.
Though it’s a startling number of tragedies to have occurred within such a short time, all within a 3-mile radius, it shows there’s a dark side to the North Coast’s rugged beauty. Cal Fire information officer Cecile Juliette called the string of incidents an “unfortunate coincidence.”
“I would say it’s a little out of the ordinary considering they all happened within such a small area within eight days of each other,” Juliette said. “But we see people getting killed by the ocean and surf around San Mateo and Santa Cruz County. I don’t know if I would use the word ‘often,’ but it’s not uncommon.”
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were a total of 100 surf zone fatalities in 2020 across the United States, seven of which occurred in California. So far, there have been a total of 111 fatalities in 2021, eight of which happened in California. The data includes deaths through only Monday and does not account for Ebright.
Witnesses saw Guzman, of San Jose, walk into the water near Davenport Beach on his own, but once he was 30-50 yards in, he began calling for help until witnesses lost sight of him. Miltko, of Chicago, was seen standing on a rock at Panther State Beach before a wave washed him off and pulled him into the water.
According to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Ebright, a San Lorenzo Valley High student, was body surfing with a friend at Laguna Creek when the water pulled them both in. While his friend was able to get himself to shore, Ebright was swept away.
Guzman and Miltko’s bodies were recovered, but Ebright remains missing.
Officials urge beachgoers to stay out of the water, or swim only at beaches where lifeguards are present. (Lifeguards are not present at any beaches north of Cowell in Santa Cruz.) Juliette emphasized staying away from “pocket beaches” — beaches with cliffs on both sides — saying they are some of the steepest and most dangerous shorelines, particularly during high tides that are rising. She added that response times can often be delayed in remote areas like the North Coast.
Santa Cruz Fire Department Marine Safety Officer Brendan Daly said beaches in the Davenport area have always been risky spots to go for a swim.
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“You just have to sort of understand that if you’re going to these isolated beaches, with no lifeguard service, that you really are going near the water at your own risk,” Daly said. “And you need to be educated and aware of the hazards of the ocean.”
Cal Fire posted a video Thursday on social media in response to the recent deaths. In it, Eddie Rhee-Pizano, lifeguard supervisor with California State Parks, and Cal Fire Battalion Chief Eric Bither warn that the ocean is constantly changing and to use safety precautions.
“All it takes is one wave to surge over that rock that you thought was safe,” said Rhee-Pizano. “And then next thing you know you’re in the water.”
Cal Fire’s message:
- Stay off the rocks
- Go to a beach that has a lifeguard
- Respect the power of the ocean
As SCFD’s Daly puts it:
“Always keep your eyes on the water. We recommend that everybody stay on dry land. So if you look down at your feet and you’re standing on rocks that are wet, it’s probably not a safe place for you to be.”