2 die in ocean during school field trip
A “guys’ weekend” away ended tragically Sunday for South Lake Tahoe’s St. Theresa School eighth-grade basketball team when an errant wave took the lives of a 14-year-old boy and a parent who went to his rescue.
Another boy, caught in the same wave near Northern California’s Mendocino coast, was injured.
Michael W. Blank Jr., 14, and Phillip J. Smith, 56, were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department and taken to the Mendocino Coastal Hospital, where they were pronounced dead.
Johnathan D. Camello, 13, was rescued and taken by helicopter to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where he was treated for extensive abrasions, lacerations and hypothermia. He was expected to be released Monday.
“This was a parent’s worst nightmare,” said Fred Kollar, El Dorado County’s Undersheriff and a parent on the field trip. “It was the absolute worst-case scenario.”
The drownings were just minutes before the 10 boys and five parents were to return home.
The group had been staying at an oceanfront house near Casper Beach.
As parents packed the car, the teenagers, accompanied by parents Michael Blank Sr., and Phil Smith, walked down to a tidal pool behind the house. The teenagers played around the rock around 25 feet from the ocean.
A huge wave “came out of nowhere,” said student Jason Winslow.
“It hit us all, pushed us forward and then drew us back,” he said “We were all scrambling to hang on. We were grabbing each other, holding on to each other.”
The wave dislodged Blank and Camello. Smith, who was described as a strong swimmer, jumped in to save the boys.
“He just jumped into the water, grabbed Johnathan, and pushed him up the rock,” said Michael Pielaet-Strayer, another eighth-grader witness. “Then he grabbed Michael (Blank) and had him at the rock when another wave pulled them away.”
Smith was able to push Blank toward the shore before he was pulled under by the rip tide.
Two boys ran back to the house to get help. Two others tried to grab Camello, but were unable to reach him. The boys’ cry for help alerted neighbors, who called 911. The Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department responded within minutes.
When Blank Sr. heard the boys’ scream, he plunged into the water to reach his son, but was dashed against a rock, injuring his shoulder.
Camello was able to maneuver to a small cove, said a Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department official. Mendocino rescue workers rappelled down a cliff to reach him.