An extensive search for a man in his early 20’s who apparently drowned trying to save his girlfriend at Torrey Pines State Beach turned from rescue to recovery Sunday.
Witnesses say the couple ventured out into the water around 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
“They got caught in a rip current, a very powerful rip current. They were pulled off shore here between tower 2 and tower 3,” Lt. Ed Vodrazka said. “They were probably pulled 50 to 75 yards offshore.”
Witnesses say the man had a boogie board with him.
"Unfortunately the rip current got a hold of his girlfriend and pulled her away," said Dustin Ulibarri. "They got separated and he started panicking, yelling for help."
Witnesses told lifeguards the man got the boogie board to the 19-year-old woman before he disappeared.
Lifeguards had already left the beach and were not on scene at the time.
“[They] were already on top of the hill getting ready to go off duty, servicing their equipment and they came back down the hill,” Lt. Vodrazka said.
Two lifeguards jumped into the water to try to retrieve the victims. They pulled the unconscious woman to shore and paramedics started CPR as lifeguards continued to search for the missing man.
“We actually had one of our rangers who stripped down into plain clothes and swam out there to try to help the rescue effort as well,” Lt. Vodrazka said.
But there was no sign of the man.
“We started an exhaustive search. We had three different lifeguard agencies working here, San Diego city, state lifeguards and Del Mar,” Lt. Vodrazka said.
They continued with 20 lifeguards in the water to try to find the second victim – to no avail.
“We needed to terminate the search last night for the safety of the divers and lifeguards on scene,” Lt. Vodrazka said.
At daybreak they returned to the water and started a recovery effort.
“The Del Mar city lifeguard team has graciously come to help us here. They’ve put 12 guards in the water, a dive team on scuba,” Lt. Vodrazka said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to try to recover that second victim.”
Lifeguards are warning swimmers that rip currents are prevalent this time of year but the El Nino conditions are making it even worse. Big waves have chewed up the bottom of the ocean and created deep channels.
“Those channels are creating very dangerous rip currents. The combination of the rips, the cold water, both these swimmers had no wetsuits on, it doesn’t sounds like they were very good swimmers at all and there were no lifeguards on duty,” Lt. Vodrazka said.
Lifeguards recommend that only experienced swimmers should be in the water in these conditions.
“It’s like a river pulling out to sea. If a swimmer gets stuck in that or gets pulled in that they can get pulled offshore and it’s very difficult to swim against the impact of that water and the power of that water flowing out to sea,” Lt. Vodrazka said.
If you do get caught in a rip they recommend that you swim parallel to shore so you’re away from the pull of the rip and then swim back in.
“Apparently people on the shore were yelling to them to do this, but they probably didn’t understand or couldn’t hear them,” Lt. Vodrazka said.
The woman was taken to the intensive care unit at Scripps La Jolla. There is no word on her condition but Lt. Vodrazka said it appears the young man saved her life.
Both victims live in San Diego.