Off-duty Calif. firefighter rescues 10 struggling surfers
Santa Cruz Firefighter Dustin Marty was presented a letter of commendation for helping to recover the 10 people who had become stranded in a cove
Jessica A. York
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.
PLEASURE POINT, Calif. — For locals growing up in the water along the Santa Cruz coast, it’s the little things that can flash big warning signs.
Dustin Marty, a Central Fire Protection District firefighter for the past decade with experience as a State Parks lifeguard and local junior guard before that, was off duty, cruising East Cliff Drive in search of the perfect swell to surf on a Saturday afternoon in September. The tide was high and the swell moderate, so Marty, 32, decided he would run some errands for his wife instead.
However, something he can barely explain — call it gut instinct, those tiny tell-tale signs that the surfers were not local, wearing their wet suits improperly, using swimming goggles — urged Marty to circle back around, park and get into his wetsuit anyway.
On Nov. 12, Central Fire Chief Steven Hall awarded Marty, a rescue swimmer for the department who is stationed in Soquel, with a letter of commendation for his actions in front of his wife and mother during a board of directors meeting.
“This is about what we do, 24-7, 365 days a year. To all of our firefighters and first responders, this is not a job, it’s a career. It’s almost a passion they have,” Hall said in a recent interview. “It’s almost one of those bittersweet moments. I’m going to scold him for risking his life by himself, but praise him for what he did and how that could have had a different outcome.”
At 12:36 p.m. on Sept. 28, the emergency call was broadcast by dispatchers: 10 people were stranded in a beach cove at the end of 38th Avenue below East Cliff Drive and rescuers might need to rappel down the cliff to bring each surfer up and out.
Within an hour of Marty’s decision to get into the water that day, he would be leading those same 10 people up out of a beach cove as his on-duty coworkers arrived. The stairway closest to 38th Avenue where the group, whose members were not all together, had been trying unsuccessfully to get out of the water is among the most treacherous in Pleasure Point. The exit point is surrounded by a pile of large erosion-preventing rocks known as riprap and the lowest reaches of the stairwell are crumbling and often green with slippery moss.
“Working for State Parks, one of the biggest things they drill into us is preventative safety actions. Basically, that’s — the best lifeguard is the lifeguard that never has to get in the water. You prevent it before it happens,” Marty said in a recent interview at the main Central Fire station in Live Oak. “I wasn’t planning on saving anybody. I was just like, I’m going to go put my wetsuit on and go jump in the water, just to jump in the water anyways. But what had sparked me originally going back was seeing these people and going, ‘OK, if everybody’s fine, it’s all good.'”
When Marty started swimming, he could see one female surfer whose face looked a little panicked, he said. He said he thought, ‘OK, I can help one person.’ Soon, others noticed his assistance and began following suit — several even starting to fall off their surfboards amidst the arriving swell.
“By the time that I had got that person to the beach, there was another person doing the same thing and then there was two people and then it just kept coming,” Marty said. “I was doing this back-and-forth thing and then it was actually kind of comical, at one point.”
Marty ended up swimming out to some of the panicking surfers and hopping on the back of their boards to paddle them to a large beach inlet bordered by a seawall, staging others out beyond the surf and eventually grouping them all on the beach until he and a bystander could help them along a slippery path to the stairwell.
“The way everything happened, it was so quick. With this job, you have priorities, and the No. 1 priority in going to a call is that life is the No. 1 priority,” Marty said. “So, you’re kind of like, I can get these people out of the water. There was no, ‘Time out. Hold on, I’m going to go get a cell phone or talk to somebody.'”
According to the department, one rescued surfer made a point to later thank Marty for single-handedly saving 10 lives.
©2019 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)