Surfers, beachgoers rescued amid tsunami advisory at SF’s Ocean Beach


When the San Francisco Fire Department’s public information officer John Baxter received a call on Saturday morning that a tsunami advisory had been issued for coastal California, including parts of the Bay Area, the first thing he did was look out the window of his home, located about a mile and a half from Ocean Beach.

After making sure his family, pets and property were safe, he climbed up the roof with a pair of binoculars in hand and observed the coastline. 

“I didn’t see what I’ve seen in Hollywood, like a huge wave coming toward us or anything,” said Baxter. 

But that didn’t mean the dangers weren’t present. Despite the size of the waves — which reached peak heights of one to two feet in San Francisco, according to the National Weather Service, while flooding parts of Pacifica and Santa Cruz, even causing Soquel Creek to flow backwards — he knew what was happening beneath the surface of the water. 

“What’s actually occurring is surges of water with lots of force,” he said. “We don’t see what’s underneath it, which is an extremely long rip current.” 

Ocean Beach is seen in San Francisco on Jan. 15, 2022 during a tsunami alert issued after a Tonga volcanic eruption. 

Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A team of first responders, including firefighters, park rangers and police, made their way to Ocean Beach, China Beach and the Embarcadero to explain what was going on and discourage people from going out into the water, while PA systems relayed similar messages. Eight on-duty rescue swimmers also reported to Ocean Beach that day.

It’s not something that necessarily falls under the fire department’s purview as a response agency, said Baxter.

“But due to the emergence of the tsunami we felt it necessary to have a visual presence,” he said. “We’re all humans. Some of us think, ‘I want to go to the beach and see what’s going on there.’ At the end of the day, some people make good decisions, some make bad ones. It’s our job not to judge but to mitigate injury.”

It was the right move: An estimated 200 people showed up to Ocean Beach from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., said Baxter. First responders aided about 25 people who they believed required assistance to get out of ankle- or knee-deep water. They also approached dozens of other individuals on the sand with surfboards, boogie boards and beach attire, encouraging them to turn around and spend the day elsewhere. 

Rescue swimmers also saved three surfers at Kelly’s Cove who decided to challenge the swell of the waves that afternoon between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. Two of the rescues occurred when swimmers spotted the surfers about 200 to 300 yards from the beach waving their arms and calling for help, while another incident was the result of a 911 call. 

One surfer’s board was broken by the impact of the surging waves, said Baxter. The current was so choppy that it wasn’t safe for swimmers to go back to the shore, so the surfers were transported by rescue boat about a mile and half away to China Beach, aided by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. 

Though they were frightened and shivering from the cold water, all three surfers — one woman and two men — survived and did not require medical care beyond evaluations performed by paramedics at the scene. 

“Our rescue swimmers said they were very appreciative and grateful. As a rescue swimmer myself, I can say that a person is usually so exhausted from the event that you can tell they’re happy to be saved,” said Baxter.

Some of the rescue swimmers dispatched by the San Francisco Fire Department at Ocean Beach. 

Some of the rescue swimmers dispatched by the San Francisco Fire Department at Ocean Beach. 

San Francisco Fire Department/Twitter

“You have to understand that we usually don’t rescue surfers,” he added. “It’s usually people who go out in the water for the first time. These are all vetted, experienced surfers who went out… That’s just how aggressive the waves were.” 

When the tsunami advisory was lifted for San Francisco just before 8 p.m, Baxter said he felt “a huge sigh of relief.” 

“I just think about the lives that were saved thanks to the messaging within our community and robust public safety,” he said. “All of these people were working together with the right information at the right time. I think that saved lives throughout the state of California, not just San Francisco.”