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‘Normal beach day gone awry’: 3 killed in Encinitas bluff collapse

Bluff collapse.jpg
Three people were killed in an Encinitas beach bluff collapse Friday afternoon, Aug. 2.
(Hayne Palmour/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Three people were killed when an oceanfront bluff collapsed Friday at Grandview beach in the Leucadia area of Encinitas, authorities said.

A woman died at the scene, and the death toll rose when two people who’d been taken to hospitals in critical condition succumbed to their injuries, authorities said Friday night, Aug. 2.

A little before 3 p.m., a 30-by-25-foot chunk of heavy sandstone broke loose from the cliff just north of a mobile lifeguard tower and the wooden stairs leading to the beach from Neptune Avenue, authorities said.

A woman died at the scene, according to Encinitas lifeguard Capt. Larry Giles and sheriff’s officials. Her name and age were not immediately released.

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One of the critically injured victims who later died was airlifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, and the other was rushed by ambulance to Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, authorities said.

Two other victims had minor injuries; one was taken to a hospital by ambulance, and one was evaluated at the scene.

Authorities gave no details about the victims, except to say none were children.

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Encinitas Fire Chief Mike Stein said during an evening press briefing that there had been conflicting reports on the beach about whether anyone remained missing, so cadaver dogs were at the scene searching for more potential victims.

City officials gave no indication Friday night, Aug. 2 that there were additional victims still missing, or that any additional bodies would be found in the rubble.

The collapse happened near a popular surf spot known as Grandview, just north of the wooden stairs leading to the sand from a small public parking lot where Neptune Avenue dead ends. The sandy beach area changes with the tides, but is generally very narrow.

A massive, hot tub-size chunk of sandstone was among the debris that fell onto the sand below. Next to the detritus, beach chairs, towels and umbrellas were abandoned where the victims had set up on a warm, partly cloudy day.

Jim Pepperdine, who lives on Neptune Avenue just south of the Grandview Stairs, said he was working at home when he became alarmed by the sirens and trucks he heard outside around 3 p.m., so he went to take a look.

“I saw first responders, and I saw lifeguards frantically digging people out of the debris,” he said, adding it looked like the victims had been at the beach together.

“They were clearly distraught,” Pepperdine said. “It was a normal beach day gone awry.”

Pepperdine said he saw people trying to resuscitate a woman before her body was covered.

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Brian Ketterer, southern field division chief with California State Parks, said the material in the collapse was dense Torrey and Del Mar sandstone.

“This material is very, very heavy,” he said. “Crews are going to come in and will slowly and meticulously break it apart to see if we have anybody still buried under there.”

Stein, the fire chief, said emergency crews were unable to search portions of the debris because of the stability of the cliff. And complicating matters, the incoming tide Friday evening was expected to be among the highest of the year, Giles said.

Lifeguards closed the beach from Ponto in the north, to several hundred yards south of Grandview, because crews were bringing in heavy equipment to search the rubble.

City officials said Friday night that the area around the collapsed bluff would remain closed indefinitely.

“Given the apparent natural instability, beachgoers should avoid areas near or under the bluffs and keep a recommended safe distance of 25 to 40 feet away,” Encinitas officials said in a statement.A lifeguard reported hearing the collapse and noticed several people were involved, Stein said. Rescue workers were on the scene in about four minutes.

Stein said the collapse sent about 15 to 20 cubic yards of sandstone crashing down, and city engineers who inspected the site were concerned about a potential secondary collapse directly behind the first.

But Stein said homes above the bluffs, which are set back several dozen feet from the edge of the cliff, were not in any danger.

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Authorities said bluff collapses like the one Friday happen several times a year and are natural occurring events along the constantly eroding and changing coastline.

A portion of the marine safety page on Encinitas’ website is dedicated to the dangers of the city’s oceanfront cliffs.

“Because of frequent bluff failures, a great deal of consideration has been given to ensuring the safety of those who visit our beaches,” the city says on its website. “Please be aware that in most areas hiking near or directly on top of the bluffs is prohibited. It is also important for visitors to avoid standing or sitting directly underneath unstable bluffs, since they may collapse.”

City officials have placed warning signs at several locations that are unsafe and should be avoided, according to the website. It was not clear if the section of bluff that collapsed Friday afternoon was one that city officials previously considered unsafe.

Encinitas resident Rebecca Kowalczyk, 30, died near the same area Jan. 16, 2000, when a 110-yard-wide chunk of bluff fell on top of her and buried her. Kowalczyk was on the Leucadia beach watching her husband surf when the tragedy struck.

The last fatal bluff-collapse in San Diego County happened more than a decade ago, when 57-year-old Nevada tourist Robert Mellone was crushed by a shower of sand and boulders from a section of bluff above Torrey Pines State Beach.

On July 17, 2002, a 39-year-old man, James Franklin, died when the cave he used for shelter at South Carlsbad State Beach collapsed on him.

Two tourists, Timothy Silcox, 33, and David Shulin, 35, were killed Jan. 22, 1995, when a sea bluff collapsed on them at Torrey Pines State Reserve. Merrell Davis, 52, of Mission Hills, was buried up to his chest and suffered a leg fracture in that collapse.

On Friday, Yorba Linda resident Mike Bassett said he didn’t witness the landslide, but had visited the same area late Thursday night during a high tide that pummeled the cliff.

“We were there last night around 11:30. There was no beach at all,” Bassett said. “There was probably two feet of water around the lifeguard station. It was weird to see the waves pounding on the bluff.”

It was unclear what caused the bluff to collapse Friday. Adam Young, a researcher with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, headed to the site immediately after learning of the incident, but was unable to get close enough to view the area.

He wouldn’t speculate on what caused the collapse, but said factors including wave action, rainfall and others contribute to cliff erosion over time.

“It’s usually a combination of processes that could be going on for years,” Young said.

It was also unknown which agency, if any, is responsible for monitoring and stabilization of bluffs in Encinitas. North County Transit District spokeswoman Kim Wall said the agency has projects to stabilize Del Mar bluffs in order to protect rail lines, but said rail lines in Encinitas are inland — away from the coast.

“The area where this happened is not near our tracks, so this wouldn’t be an area we are reinforcing,” she said.

There have been several recent bluff collapses in the Del Mar area, where railroad tracks hug the edge of the cliff, though that area is slightly less popular with beachgoers. But one landslide last August in Del Mar narrowly missed a sunbather.

As news stations scrambled for footage of Friday’s event, the Sheriff’s Department warned news helicopters to maintain a safe elevation above the site, stating that the aircraft were impairing rescue and recovery efforts.

“For TV stations flying a helicopter over the bluff collapse in (Encinitas), you are flying too low,” the Sheriff’s Department stated in a tweet. “The vibrations of your aircraft are affecting safety operations for first responders and could cause further instability at the scene. Please fly higher.”

— Alex Riggins and Gary Warth are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune

— Staff writer Deborah Sullivan Brennan and staff research director Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.

Updates:

10:57 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This story was updated with additional details and background information.

9:39 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This story was updated with information about two additional deaths.

7:31 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This story was updated with details throughout.

6:35 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This story was updated with additional details and descriptions.

5:52 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This story was updated with additional information from the scene, background information and interviews.

5:09 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This story was updated with additional details and background information.

4:43 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This incident was updated with additional details from Lt. Giles.

3:44 PM, Aug. 02, 2019: This story was updated with background information about Encinitas’ cliffs.


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