San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
A rip current, a son vanished, a family looking for answers
Boy’s death spurs effort to warn beachgoers about sneaker waves
Upon reaching the bottom of the steps leading to Cowell Ranch State Beach, 8yearold Siddhant Pruthi grabbed a fistful of sand and turned to his older brother, Arunay. Ahead lay the Pacific Ocean and an afternoon free of the pandemic’s confinements.
“Dadabhai,” Siddhant said, addressing his 12yearold brother with a Bengali term of endearment. “This is a bad beach.”
He was referring to the rocks in the sand, nothing more. The boys’ parents walked over to greet their cluster of friends camped near the base of a cliff. The tightknit pandemic bubble of four families often met along the San Mateo County coast on weekends. This was the Fremont family’s first time at Cowell, a secluded cove south of Half Moon Bay.
Sharmistha and Tarun Pruthi chatted with the others while pitching a tent they had brought to shelter themselves from the midafternoon sun on a warm January day. The beach was full of fami
lies. They didn’t think anything of their youngest son approaching the water’s edge to feel the cold surf graze his feet.
But the wave that came next wasn’t ankledeep, as previous waves had been. This one blasted Siddhant as he tried to run from it, first knocking him down and then dragging him under.
In the splitsecond it took for Sharmistha to turn around, husband Tarun was already sprinting into the ocean. Sharmistha ran after him. She could feel the sand shifting beneath her feet as she threw herself into the water toward her husband and son. Rocked by the force of the oncoming waves, soon, all three were immersed in the churning water.
After several attempts to propel himself toward Siddhant during the lull between waves, Tarun could not reach his son. Sharmistha managed to grab hold of Siddhant’s hand, but only for a moment, losing her grip as one wave after another crashed over them. Sharmistha said she thinks she lost consciousness underwater.
On the beach, friends and strangers linked arms to form a human chain. Somehow, the group hauled the family onto the sand: Siddhant, then Tarun, and finally Sharmistha. Tarun and Sharmistha lacked the strength to stand. But they had survived.
“Arunay is keeping his head above water,” someone told him.
The statement struck Tarun as odd. Arunay isn’t in the water.
Sharmistha, surrounded by the strangers who she said saved her life, regained her senses and stood. What she saw as she looked toward the ocean made her want to rush back in: “I saw his head,” she said. “I knew who it was.”
Unbeknownst to the parents, as their attention was focused on saving Siddhant, another huge wave had hit the shoreline and swept Arunay into the ocean.
Tarun called out to Arunay, but he knew it was too late. A rip current was pulling the boy farther and farther away.
In the seven weeks before the Pruthi family’s visit to the coast on Jan. 18, seven people had been fatally swept from Bay Area beaches into the Pacific Ocean.
A toddler on a holiday outing. A man taking a break from his job as a handyman. A father and his two children. A woman foraging for sea urchins. A man exploring the shoreline with friends.
A tragic fact united the seven deaths: They occurred on days authorities had issued coastal hazard warnings. The National Weather Service alerted the public to perilous high tides, rip currents and sneaker waves on 41 days between November and February — twice as many as the same period a year earlier.
Witness descriptions of the wave that pitched Arunay into the surf bore the hallmarks of a sneaker wave: Called “extreme runup events” by scientists, they catch victims by surprise, dragging them into the ocean as the ground beneath their feet “suddenly becomes inundated,” researchers at Oregon State University wrote in a 2018 paper, one of the first attempts to define the phenomenon.
Anyone who has spent time along the Northern California coast has probably experienced waves that arrive during periods of calm and travel far higher up the shore, swamping chairs and towels and sand castles that had seemed well out of harm’s way. Sneaker waves similarly catch beachgoers offguard, but are rarer events that strike with much more water and with the force to knock adults off their feet.
“They pull you out fully clothed and then you’re in a world of trouble,” said Brian Garcia, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Sometimes called sleeper waves, they form during offshore storms that transfer energy to the ocean surface. Meteorologists track oceanic storms to predict when sneaker waves will come crashing into the Northern California coast days later.
In any given year, the Bay Area may see one or two sneaker wave deaths. But the period from November to January was deadlier than any stretch authorities had seen before. And they knew the reasons: an unusually high number of sneaker waves, a warm spell caused by La Niña weather, and a flood of families using beaches to escape the pandemic shutdown.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” Garcia said.
One question has haunted Tarun and Sharmistha since that January day at the beach: If the experts knew the risks, why didn’t we?
“Is that your son?” Sharmistha remembers the question. She remembers begging whoever asked it to let her go into the water after Arunay. Her friends on the beach gripped her arms to hold her back. That’s my child.
The first 911 call came at 3:42 p.m. According to a California State Parks incident report, personnel from seven government agencies responded to the remote beach, whose entrance lay at the end of a halfmile footpath through mustard flower fields.
More 911 calls followed; recordings obtained by The Chronicle capture harrowing screams in the background as callers beg for help.
The last person to touch Arunay was family friend Sanjeev Kulkarni. He had been playing Frisbee near the camp when he heard someone call out, “Siddy’s in the water!”
Kulkarni joined the rush of friends and family to the shoreline and saw Arunay. His first instinct was to try to get to Siddhant, but then he spotted Arunay standing on the beach. He ran toward the boy and grabbed his hand. But the sand began moving beneath their feet, tugging them toward the ocean. The water swelled up to their knees.
He did not think they were in danger, he said. He thought they would be able to get out of the water.
But suddenly, Kulkarni said, a “giant, monstrous” wave hit them.
“I got thrown in the water,” he said. “I lost contact with (Arunay). I drank water. It was spinning me.”
After tumbling for what he estimates was about 30 seconds, he was thrown back to shore, where someone pulled him to safety.
“I was dazed,” he said. Kulkarni, his shoulder dislocated from the turbulence, returned to the camp, where he found Siddhant wrapped in a stranger’s blanket. Arunay was not there, nor were his parents.
It was then that he looked out at the water and saw Arunay. The boy was floating away.
Nearby, Tarun and Sharmistha watched in horror as their son tried to stay afloat.
“I howled and cried,” Sharmistha said.
Dispatchers’ notes in the 911 call log only hint at their agony as they watched their son in the violent surf.
“Too far out for anyone on the beach to get him,” a dispatcher noted after speaking with a bystander.
Three minutes later: “Trying to stay adrift.”
Three minutes later: “Starting to go under for longer periods of time.”
Cary Smith, a San Mateo County Harbor District officer, was in his patrol boat at Pillar Point Harbor, 10 miles to the north, when a dispatcher’s voice over his radio said a boy was trapped in a rip current. He sped down the coast over waves as high as 20 feet. The water that day was “unbelievably rough,” he said.
From an overlook, rescuers pointed binoculars at the water. Smith maneuvered the boat to the area where those on the cliff had last seen Arunay. The trained people are here,
Sharmistha thought. Now they will get Arunay.
But because the two lifeguards dispatched to the beach did not see the boy, they did not enter the water, said Gabriel McKenna, a State Parks public safety superintendent. Had they spotted him, they would have had to decide whether they could emerge from a rescue mission alive.
“From a rescuer’s perspective,” Smith said, “there was nothing that could be done.”
Nearly two hours after they had last seen their son in the water, the parents left the beach at the urging of San Mateo County sheriff ’s deputies. It was dark as they ascended the wooden stairs to the overlook and walked to the parking lot to be interviewed for a police report and await word on their son.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter whirred overhead, its roving search lights trained on the ocean. In the place where Arunay had been, the lights found only the sea.
Tarun and Sharmistha left and checked into a room at the Half Moon Bay Lodge after 10 p.m. The parents hugged their son Siddhant goodbye — “Go with Auntie for the night” — but then returned to Cowell.
They brought a blanket and a backpack full of dry clothes for Arunay. He might be waiting on the beach.
When they descended the staircase, they encountered two strangers who had heard a boy was missing and were searching the sand. Tarun and Sharmistha joined them, roaming the quartermile stretch before heading back to the hotel after midnight.
At daybreak, the helicopter returned.
Coast Guard searchandrescue teams use computer modeling to calculate how long a person in distress can survive in open water, accounting for age and body type. Using realtime data from ocean buoys, the teams try to predict where a person would drift.
To avoid unnecessary danger to rescuers, a mission coordinator helps make the decision to end searches when there is no hope. Three hours after resuming operations in the morning, two Coast Guard representatives met the Pruthis at the hotel. There was, they explained, little chance of finding the boy alive.
“They were showing us drawings and data and all the research,” Tarun said. “They gave us a bunch of papers.”
The parents could not believe their son was lost. To them, Arunay was still the boy at the dinner table who had, less than two weeks earlier, compared the Capitol Hill riot to the plot of “Animal Farm”; the son whose interest in politics had grown in the months since his mother took him to a Black Lives Matter protest; the soccer fanatic; the child who alternately fought and played with his younger brother when the coronavirus shrank their worlds overnight.
At 10:20 a.m. on Jan. 19, after 17 hours, the Coast Guard called off its search.
A growing group of family members, friends and strangers was already mobilizing. For them, the search for Arunay was just beginning.
Arunay’s disappearance ended a deadly twomonth period that began with another child’s death, on another Bay Area beach.
On Nov. 26, the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, 4yearold Katherine Huajun Xu of Pinole died after being dragged into the surf on a family outing to McClures Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. Her father charged in after her and survived. The waves carried Katherine’s body back to shore 45 minutes later.
On Dec. 8, a handyman was on a break from a job in Pacifica when a wave snatched him from the rocks beneath the municipal pier. Bystanders scrambled to find a rope, but David Barba, 31, was gone before they could reach him. His body washed ashore at Fort Funston in San Francisco nearly a month later.
The season’s horror intensified on Jan. 3, when three members of a Petaluma family were killed at Blind Beach in Jenner. Michael Wyman, 40, drowned while trying to save his two children, 7yearold Anna and 4yearold John, who had been swept to sea. Rescuers recovered Wyman’s body that day. The children’s bodies were recovered two weeks later. Their mother, who was on the beach with them, lost her entire family.
The next Sunday, Jan. 10, saw two more deaths. First, a wave pulled three friends into the ocean beneath Point Bonita Lighthouse at the Marin Headlands. Two made it back to shore, but the third, identified only as a San Jose resident in his 30s, has not been found.
Amid the incident, Coast Guard officials diverted one helicopter to a second rescue mission, which unfolded less than one hour later. Forty miles down the coast, at Pescadero State Beach, a wave overtook 37yearold Redwood City resident Xuanxi He and her husband as they looked for sea urchins. The husband washed back to shore and survived. Xuanxi, her waders filling with water, was pulled under. Authorities recovered her body south of Half Moon Bay two weeks later.
The toll could have been worse. Authorities reported a string of nearmisses, including one just 30 minutes before