The dense earth surrounding a cliff that collapsed at a beach in Leucadia, California, killing three people, is "fractured" and "still active," a lead official said Saturday.
"From what we’ve learned this morning, based off the geotech (city's Geotechnical Consultant) is that the area is still active. He is concerned about the areas to the sides of the current failure...failing," Encinitas Fire and Marine Safety Capt. Larry Giles explained.
The captain said the city's geotechnician identified "some fractures" in the areas immediately to the left and right of the cliff that collapsed.
"We’re going to be watching that," assured Giles.
Giles said signs are posted around those potentially dangerous zones surrounding the fallen cliff, warning the public to stay away.
He said the geotechnician does not believe the homes that top the bluffs are in any danger.
"These structures are set quite a few feet back; the geotech is assuring us that’s not a factor," he added.
Grandview Beach, where the cliff collapsed a day earlier, remained closed overnight and into Saturday morning as officials kept watch on the rocks and investigated the deadly disaster.
Giles said the beach to the north and south of the location of the collapse would reopen to the public later in the day. Grandview Beach reopened by 10:45 a.m.
Giles said lifeguards would guard the cliff area to keep the public safe, the captain added.
"We're anticipating a lot of people are going to want to come down and see what happened, so, for the public: please, help us out, keep out of that active area," Giles said.
Officials recommended beachgoers exercise caution while visiting Grandview Beach, given the instability of the bluffs and cliffs. The City of Encinitas said beachgoers should avoid areas near or under the bluffs and keep a distance of at least 25 to 40 feet away.
The Cliff Collapse:
At around 3 p.m. Friday, a cliff off the 1700 block of Neptune Avenue at Grandview Beach collapsed just feet away from a lifeguard tower, crumbling onto the sand below.
As the terrain toppled, several people became trapped underneath.
Five victims were hurt in the cliff collapse, and three of those victims ultimately died, officials with the City of Encinitas and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department confirmed.
Grandview Beach – an access point to Leucadia State Beach in the coastal City of Encinitas – is a popular spot among surfers. The beach was filled with people enjoying a sunny summer day when the earth came tumbling down.
Giles said a lifeguard manning the nearby tower witnessed the cliff collapse.
"He felt it and heard it," Giles said Saturday.
Giles described the cliff that fell as being approximately 30 feet wide, with a depth of 25 feet. He estimated the material that came crashing down weighed about 120 pounds per square foot.
The captain said a collapse like this would sound like the "sloughing of material coming down," and likened that sound to the dumping of a 5-pound bucket of sand on the beach, only "times 1,000."
Giles said the lifeguard on duty immediately called for backup, jumped from his tower, and ran over to try to help the victims trapped beneath the rubble.
Several Good Samaritans stepped in and started helping the lifeguard, Giles said.
As the pieces of earth fell, the debris rolled toward the ocean. In geotechnical terms, Giles said this collapse was dubbed a "block failure."
He said events like this do happen in beachside communities with a "naturally eroding coastline."
"Our coastline is a beautiful coastline, our beaches are great beaches, they’re just naturally eroding," he added.
Giles said signs are displayed at all public beaches – including Grandview Beach – at the top and bottom of the cliffs warning beachgoers of the erosion.
Lifeguards can’t force beachgoers to move away from the cliffs when they set up their things for a day at the beach. Still, Giles said local lifeguards make every effort to warn beachgoers.
In the moments following the collapse, SkyRanger 7 captured footage beach chairs, towels, surfboards and beach toys strewn about the sand near the fallen cliff. Beachgoers scrambled out of the way, looking on in utter shock.
Officials said one of the victims died at the scene of the cliff collapse. Four other victims were hurt, three of whom were taken to local hospitals with a range of unspecified injuries. The fourth victim was treated at the scene for minor injuries.
Hours later, Encinitas officials confirmed two of those injured victims had died. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said none of the victims were children.
Officials have not yet formally named the three people killed in the collapse. However, surviving family members identified the victims Saturday in an heart-wrenching email sent to friends and extended family about the tragedy.
The email, obtained by NBC 7 Saturday morning, said the victims were a family -- a daughter, mother and aunt -- identified as Annie Clave, Julie Davis, and Elizabeth Cox. The women were enjoying a beach day with a large group of friends and extended family when tragedy struck. Read their story here.
At a news briefing Saturday, Encinitas Fire Department Deputy Chief Robert Ford called the emergency response to the disaster "robust and collaborative in nature," saying it involved officials across several local agencies.
Once the injured victims were loaded onto ambulances, Ford said officials shifted their focus to securing the area and starting the search for more victims in the rubble. They roped off the cliffs to keep beachgoers out of harm's way.
Ford said cadaver dogs were used in the search and rescue mission.
They knew at least one victim remained under the rocks; Ford said heavy equipment was used to dig that woman's body out of the debris.
Officials knew the cliffs were unstable and feared more rocks might tumble onto the beach. A few hours into the rescue operation, officials had to stop due to the dangerous conditions.
Ford said the cadaver dogs keep sifting through the rubble and ultimately determined no one else was underneath.
As for the victims, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office is conducting autopsies. The ME will release the names of those killed in the cliff collapse at a later point in time.
An 'Erosion Incident'
Giles said the lifeguard tower that was located near the site where the cliff collapsed has been moved for now. Officials will remain at the scene Saturday monitoring the rocks.
The captain said the city’s geotechnical consultant called Friday’s collapse "an isolated incident."
"It was an erosion incident that took place at this location, at the wrong time," Giles lamented.
Giles said the bluffs that tower above Grandview Beach don’t belong to the City of Encinitas; they belong to homeowners.
"We’re doing everything we can, down below, that the city controls. We’re making every conservative effort down there to advise folks of the conditions and the natural erosion occurrences that we have down here on the beaches," he added.
Giles said Encinitas lifeguards patrol the beaches and assess the cliffs daily, but a lot of brush grows on the rocks and that vegetation might cover up fractures in the rocks or potential signs of looming erosion that could lead to a collapse.
Giles said there has been at least one other deadly cliff collapse like this south of Grandview Beach in the past, in an area called Stonesteps. In that incident, one person died, in the "same scenario."
San Diego State University geology professor Pat Abbott visited NBC 7 Friday to talk about the cliff collapse. He said the cliff that collapsed was likely impacted by both gravity and the waves and tides that, at times, crash up against it.
"And so, you know, absolutely that on any given day one of these masses is liable to fall," he explained. "Many fall each year but during the night or during the winter when we don’t notice it, but on times like this in the middle of the summer day when the beach is crowded it turns into a tragedy."
The cliffs and bluffs in this area at Neptune Avenue and Grandview Street have been at the center of controversy for years.
According to court documents filed in the Supreme Court of the State of California, there was a "significant" cliff collapse in 2010 near the scene of Friday’s cliff collapse. After that 2010 incident, a Leucadia homeowner went to the Coastal Commission for permission to fix the bluff that runs along the back of her home at Grandview Street and Neptune Avenue.
The area became the subject of a high-stakes lawsuit over a seawall, and the rights of homeowners to build and keep that protection against erosion.
Over the years, that seawall dispute went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Two families who live on a bluff just a few blocks south of Friday’s deadly collapse built a seawall to protect their properties. The project was time-consuming and costly.
The California Coastal Commission put a 20-year time limit on that seawall, meaning in 20 years, the homeowners would have to contact the Coastal Commission again for permission to keep the seawall in place.
The families disagreed with the Coastal Commission’s 20-year rule, and they took the matter to court as a case of property rights versus government regulations.
The Coastal Commission argued that seawalls prevent natural erosion that keeps beaches healthy, and that’s why they would have to re-evaluate the project and whether the seawall would have to eventually come down.
In 2017, the Supreme Court sided with the Coastal Commission in a unanimous decision, saying the homeowners could not challenge the conditions of their permit after they had already built the seawall.
Larry Salzman, a lawyer with the firm that argued this case in the Supreme Court, told NBC 7 Friday the deadly cliff collapse is the very reason why Leucadia homeowners fought against the Supreme Court.
Salzman said the lawsuit was about the vital service that seawalls perform, not only by protecting private property but also by aiding with public safety.