A 62-year-old Los Altos woman is missing after heading out to windsurf in the Bay at 5 p.m. yesterday and a multi-hour search was looking grim, according to fire officials.
The woman, who was undergoing chemotherapy, was with her husband just north of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge when he lost track of her, said San Mateo-Foster City Fire Chief Dan Belville.
Rescue officials were called at about 7 p.m. Several jurisdictions, including the Alameda Fire Department, the Redwood City Fire Department and the Foster City Fire Department dispatched their water rescue teams and searched throughout the Bay with the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard.
At approximately 9:30 p.m., local jurisdictions had their efforts called off because of failing light and choppy waters, yet the Coast Guard dispatched a Cutter and had a helicopter searching throughout the night, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. jg Heather Lampert. Officials at San Francisco International Airport were also conducting a land search, Lampert said.
She is an experienced windsurfer and was wearing a wetsuit, helmet and personal flotation device, Belville said.
Belville added that the Coast Guard indicated it would continue the search until 3 a.m. by following drift patterns.
While this exhaustive search seems to be unsuccessful, it is exactly these types of efforts for which local firefighters are trained.
Local firefighters handle about 20 water rescue calls a year, but there has been an uptick this summer and added attention given to water rescues after firefighters in the city of Alameda watched a man kill himself by walking out into the Bay.
Alameda firefighters said they were prevented from rescuing the man on Memorial Day because of their fire department policy and were forced to watch a private citizen pull the dead victim from the water.
Firefighters on this side of the Bay, however, have had a water rescue policy in place for about 15 years and will take to the water in an instant for a variety of scenarios, said Foster City Battalion Chief Nick Weber.
Recently, fire crews were called for a water rescue after a woman launched her car into the San Mateo-Foster City lagoon near Hillsdale Boulevard.
The call came in just before 3 a.m. on a June morning and when crews arrived on scene the car was nearly 70 feet from shore.
Typically, fire crews avoid getting in the water but, on this morning, the woman driving the car, who was already safe on shore, said her husband and child were still stuck inside the vehicle.
Within moments, two Foster City firefighters suited up in dry suits, hopped in an inflatable rubber boat, a 12-foot Zodiac, and rushed to the submerged vehicle.
The woman turned out to be lying, however, and no water rescue was actually necessary.
Two days later, the same water rescue crew was called to the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge when a man reportedly jumped off the bridge into the Bay.
The firefighters pulled the man from the water, put him on a Coast Guard boat and shipped him off to a local hospital.
The next day, the water rescue crew was called to the bridge again on reports of a suicidal man attempting to jump into the Bay.
When firefighters pulled the man from the water, they discovered a familiar face.
“It was the same man from the day before,” said Mike Miller, a four-year Foster City firefighter.
When Miller first joined the Foster City Fire Department, he knew about the city’s extensive system of lagoons but figured he would spend most of his time fighting fires on dry land.
This summer, however, he has spent a lot of time in the water with fire partner Larry Moore, including the recent rescue effort of a capsized boat floating in the Bay. That report turned out to be false, however, and the capsized boat was just a floating bag of garbage.
Sometimes, too, firefighters will actually fish crooks out of the water attempting to flee police, Weber said.
The engine crew from Station 28 in Foster City can deploy just about anywhere and can operate in the Bay’s choppy waters or the about 12 miles of calm waters that make up the San Mateo-Foster City lagoon system, Weber said.
In San Mateo, the fire department is more of a shore-based operation, said Battalion Chief Michael Keefe.
Firefighters in San Mateo attempt water rescues initially with the least amount of risk, typically by launching rescue rings at victims first before getting in the water.
They also use a device called a ResQmax, that uses compressed air to fire a rescue line and flotation device that can reach more than 100 yards.
The device can essentially reach across every stretch of the lagoon that weaves through the two cities.
It takes more than just having a boat or rescue rings to complete water rescues, it also takes state certification. Foster City has 12 firefighters who have passed extensive state certification classes, including swift water rescues, and can be deployed anywhere in the county and state, Weber said.
Other county agencies, including Redwood City, also have water rescue capabilities,. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office also handles water rescues on parts of the coast.
Local agencies also work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and will request helicopter rescues if firefighters cannot reach a victim, Weber said. The San Mateo County Harbor District can also assist in water rescues.
Kite surfers who launch off Coyote Point are often in need of water rescues, Weber said.
“They will go out then the wind dies and they get stuck. The current is so swift that they often cannot swim back to shore,” Weber said.
It will usually be someone from shore who makes the 911 call if a kite surfer does not return in a timely manner, he said. That was the case with Monday’s incident with the husband calling for help once his wife did not return right away.
Navigating the Bay can be tricky because of the shallow, choppy waters. Even in the middle of the Bay, the water is only 7 feet deep in some spots, Weber said. On some points along the shoreline, the water is only 3 feet deep, he said.