Death and Distress at Sunset Cliffs – 2005 to 2015

by on October 16, 2015 · 16 comments

in Environment, Health, History, Life Events, Ocean Beach

Sunset Cliffs mattwood

Sunset Cliffs. Photo by Matthew Wood


The beautiful Sunset Cliffs that stretch from the residential southern portions of Ocean Beach to the lower reaches of the uninhabited sections of Point Loma are certainly a world-renown, indescribably gorgeous treasure of nature that line the land’s border with the Pacific.

At the right moment when the ocean earns its name and the Cliffs earn theirs, the beauty and serenity cannot be amply replicated by the pen – or keyboard.

Yet these same cliffs with their jagged rocks and crashing surf are also very unforgiving in their encounters with unwary humans, where death and distress accompany their collision with this abrupt edge between ocean and peninsula.

Sunset Cliffs Ladera aerial

Aerial view of the end of the residential neighborhood at Ladera Street and Sunset Cliffs. The author played and camped in this area as a teenager and Boy Scout during the early 1960s.

Growing up near the cliffs as a teenager, learning to surf off a protruding point of land of Luscums, and being a resident of OB since the late Sixties, I’ve been well aware of how the cliffs and surrounding waters can claim lives, through either falls or drownings. While a teenager, I recall a 3 year-old daughter of a San Diego Union columnist being lost over the cliffs. A classmate of mine at Point Loma High died in a surfing accident in the waves of Ocean Beach just yards from the lifeguard station.

While working on Newport Avenue in the early 1970s, I recall that a sailor was killed when the cave he was digging in along the cliffs collapsed, leaving only his dangling foot protruding from the cave’s opening. This was in either 1973 or ’74.

Deaths, drownings, distress and rescues at Sunset Cliffs are so common that we at the OB Rag took up the project of attempting to chronicle those incidents that have occurred over the last decade or so – from 2005 through today, October 2015 – nearly eleven years.

What we found is both disturbing in the numbers of deaths and serious injuries, as well as it confirms our fears of the dangers of these glorious cliffs.

To construct our chronicle, we dredged the internet for news stories, particularly from the San Diego U-T and a few online posts of local TV stations.  We also acknowledge that there appears to be plenty of gaps in our chronicle, so it is a work-in-progress (and we invite anyone to contribute to it).

We found that there has been at least an average of three deaths and serious injuries every year during that period.

This general average breaks down to an average of one death and nearly two serious injures from Sunset Cliffs yearly over this eleven year period.

And according to the news reports we researched, there also has been an average of one non-injury rescue from the cliffs every two months as well.

Yet, we believe this figure is extremely low as locals who live along or near Sunset Cliffs swear they hear the sirens of rescue vehicles daily.

Our research is imperfect partly because many rescues, we believe, do not make it to the news, and are not reported to the public. And it’s imperfect particularly for the earlier years of our survey. Perhaps mainstream media is paying more attention to cliff rescues especially since jumps off the Cliffs near Osprey Street are dramatically increasing. Also the reported dates may be off a day or 2 from the actual date of the occurrences.

cliff rescue 4-1-10 jg 03

Rescue at Sunset Cliffs, April 1, 2010. Photo by Jim Grant.

Also, just to be clear, our chronicle only includes deaths and serious injuries or condition, as well as non-injury rescues. It does not include boat or panga rescues off the cliffs; nor does it include drownings off the beach – such as the Halloween drowning of OB resident Scott Bowles. Neither does it include the many rescues off the beach or the OB Pier – such as the recent “rescue” of a naked pier jumper.  It also does not include drownings or injuries on Point Loma’s bay side.

Cliffs rescue01-sm

Rescue – Oct. 2009.

Note: our current year, 2015 – still with 2 and a half months remaining – is already the year with the most serious incidents: 11 (eleven) which include 2 deaths, 8 serious injuries and at least 1 non-injury cliff rescue (too low we believe). It also only includes humans, as many pets are also lost over the cliffs.

So, here is the start of the chronicle – and importantly, we feel it’s not complete as more research needs to be done.

Deaths, Serious Injuries and Non-Injury Rescues at Sunset Cliffs: 2005 – 2015

2005 ___________________________________________

  • January 20, 2005Surfer dies of apparent seizure

A surfer, 40, died after an apparent seizure at Sunset Cliffs while in the water below Point Loma Nazarene University, an area known as Ab’s Reef. Other surfers and city lifeguards tried to revive him, before he was airlifted to a hospital, where he passed away

  • October 31, 2005 Diver’s body found off Sunset Cliffs

A missing scuba diver’s body was discovered off Sunset Cliffs, and was identified as a 54 year old man from Carlsbad – a moderately experienced diver.  He was reportedly diving in 60 to 80 feet of water in a spot known for its kelp beds when he did not resurface with his diving partner.

2006 _______________________________________________

  • March 5, 2006Lifeguards rescue surfer from cave

A surfer was forced into a cave by waves and held prisoner by the pounding surf before San Diego lifeguards rescued him yesterday.  The 53-year-old man from Honolulu was surfing off Osprey Point when he became trapped against the cliffs.

  • May 25, 2006Surfer in distress dies after rescue

A surfer battered by high tides and surf below Sunset Cliffs was pulled from the water unconscious and could not be revived. He was a 53-year-old man visiting from New Jersey. Lifeguards were summoned  to the spot offshore below Point Loma Nazarene University.

  • July 2, 2006Rescue efforts fail to save swimmer

A 60-year-old man drowned in the Sunset Cliffs area despite rescue efforts by other swimmers, lifeguards and paramedics. San Diego lifeguards received reports of a person in distress just north of Osprey Point.  Initially, 2 beachgoers swam out to assist him and dragged him into a nearby cove, where they began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.


  • March 25, 2007Woman falls 10 feet from cliff, breaks leg

A 35-year-old woman was rescued from an ocean bluff at Sunset Cliffs after she fell and broke a leg. The incident happen at the foot of Ladera Street. She had fallen10 feet from the top of the cliffs and was taken to a hospital.

  • August 10, 2007Kayaker safe after all-night ordeal

A Clairemont man, 29, who spent the night in the ocean after his kayak sank was rescued from a beach south of Sunset Cliffs — some 17 hours after he began and about five miles away. He was suffering from extreme hypothermia when he was found on the beach in the part of Point Loma known as Wooded Area.

  • August 10, 2007Man pulled from water dies after being rescued

A 60-year-old San Diego man died after he was pulled from the water in Sunset Cliffs. The man  had jumped into the water from an outcropping of land near Sunset Cliffs Blvd near Adair Street just after 6 p.m. and then appeared to be having difficulty.  After he was rescued, he collapsed on the beach.

2008 __________________________________________________

  • November 30, 2008  – Woman dies in cliff fall

An OB woman fell off the cliffs, and her body was found at the bottom of a cliff off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in an area where her family and friends said she loved to walk, about a half-mile from her home on Orchard Street in Ocean Beach.

2009 ___________________________________________________

  • March 29, 2009  – Man hurt hitting rocks in dive from 20-foot cliff:

A 23-year-old man suffered a head injury when he jumped into the water at Sunset Cliffs.  The man dived off a 20-foot cliff at the foot of Del Monte Avenue and hit his head on rocks in the water. The man had cuts on the top of his head.

  • April 13, 2009Two men critically hurt after falling off cliff

Two men were critically injured after falling 50 to 60 feet off a bluff at Sunset Cliffs. A rescue helicopter airlifted one of the men to an ambulance and flew the second man to a hospital.

2010 __________________________________________________

  • None apparently

2011 __________________________________________________

  • March 16, 2011Man credits fellow surfers with saving him after possible heart attack

A Point Loman credits other surfers for rescuing him while on a surfing trip near Sunset Cliffs. Doctors think the 61 year old may have ha a heart attack while paddling out. The surfers he was with held him until lifeguards came to his rescue, hauled him onto a boat and transported him to Mission Bay where he was taken to a hospital.

2012 ___________________________________________________

  • July 23, 2012Injured cliff jumper rescued by helicopter

A 16-year-old boy was rescued via helicopter off Sunset Cliffs due to injuries after a friend jumped from a cliff and landed on top of him while he was in the water, near Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Osprey Street.

  • September 17, 2012Man Knocked out in leap at Sunset Cliffs

A 24-year-old man suffered head injuries when he jumped into the ocean at Sunset Cliffs.  The man hit his head on a rock below the water’s surface after jumping 25 feet to 30 feet into the ocean at low tide, off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard at Osprey Street.  A bystander came to the aid of the man, who was unconscious.

2013 ____________________________________________________

  • June 18, 20132 Men rescued – one had injured shoulder

Emergency crews came to the rescue of two men trapped by a rising ocean tide at the base of a rocky bluff in the Sunset Cliffs area, near Woodward Road, south of Point Loma Nazarene University. Fire-Rescue crews rappelled down the roughly 30-foot-high cliff to the victims and hauled them to safety, a process that took about 45 minutes, . Medics took one of the men to a hospital for treatment of a shoulder injury he apparently had suffered while surfing in the area. His companion was unhurt

  • July 30, 2013 –  Driver plunges off Sunset Cliffs in car onto beach

A motorist drove over a bluff in Sunset Cliffs landing wheels down on the sand in a small cove below.  The driver was able to get out of the car on his own following the impact, below the parking lot off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard at Osprey Street.  It appeared the back end of the four-door car hit the rocks as it plunged down the cliff, estimated at 35 to 40 feet high.

2014 _________________________________________________________

  • January 13, 2014Chicago visitor dies from Sunset Cliffs fall

A 25-year-old woman who was visiting San Diego from Chicago fell from Sunset Cliffs and died. She was believed to have been taking a photo of the sunset when ground beneath her gave way and she fell 40 to 50 feet. Several bystanders tried to revive Anna Bachman, but paramedics confirmed her death when they arrived.

  • July 15, 2014Man falls to his death at Sunset Cliffs

A 27-year-old man fell to his death from a four-story-tall sea bluff while visiting Sunset Cliffs with friends in the wee hours of the morning. A 911 call was made shortly before 4 a.m. to report the accident near the terminus of Ladera Street.  Emergency personnel found the man at the foot of a roughly 40-foot bluff, and crews put his body on a litter and used a rope-and-pulley system to bring it up to street level.  The victim’s friends told authorities he was walking along the edge of the precipice when he lost his footing.

  • August 22, 2014Woman Injured After Diving Off Cliff

A woman was injured after diving off a cliff at Sunset Cliffs, at Osprey Point. The 52-year-old woman jumped head-first from the cliffs and hit her head on the bottom. Bystanders pulled her from the water, and lifeguards and paramedics checked on her condition. Emergency crews airlifted her to a hospital with possible spinal injuries.

  • October 12, 2014 –  3 Men Nearly Drown

A group of three men nearly drowned after two ran into the water dressed in jeans near Hill Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. The two soon ran into trouble and began fighting through the large surf and strong rip currents off the cliffs, and began screaming for help. Another man in his mid-20s, rushed in to help them but got caught up himself, becoming the worst off.

One man was taken away by helicopter, another was lifted out by a large yellow crane poised on the cliffs and the third was carried out by stretcher.  All three men were considered near drowning victims by authorities, Apparently out of town visitors, they showed up and were unprepared for the dangerous waves at the bottom of the dangerously steep  cliffs. At last check, two of the victims were in serious condition according to officials. The third was able to walk up the cliffs after the rescue.

  • December 12, 2014  – Two teens rescued after jump off cliffs

Lifeguards used a crane to haul two teenage boys out of the pounding surf after they jumped off a cliff in Ocean Beach along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard near Froude Street.  They were being dashed against rocks and weren’t able to swim to safety on their own.

  • December 25, 2014Well-known local surfer dies from highly aggressive form of staph

Barry Ault, 72, succumbed just days after he fell ill on Dec.23rd after surfing southern Sunset Cliffs less than 3 days after a large storm. His death was due to a highly aggressive form of staph caught while surfing.

2015 _________________________________________________________

  • January 3, 2015 –  Kyle Witkowski dies after driving off street; girlfriend seriously injured

Local Kyle Witkowski was the victim in a fatal car crash off Sunset Cliffs during the early hours of Saturday, January 3rd. Kyle was killed and the female passenger seriously injured when his Chevy Tahoe missed the turn at the end of Bacon Street and flew off the cliffs, going through the guard-rail and fence and landing upside down on the rocks below.

  • January 15, 2015Surfer smashed on rocks

A surfer was rescued after being smashed against the jagged rocks of Sunset Cliffs. Rescuers say the man got into trouble when he tried to leave the surf, and was was hit repeatedly by sets of large waves that sent him crashing into the rocks at the foot of the cliff. Crews had to use a hoist to pull him to safety. Lifeguards say the surfer suffered cuts and bruises but was otherwise okay.

  • February 2, 2015 –  woman suffered major trauma after fall off cliffs

A woman suffered major trauma after she fell from a ledge at Sunset Cliffs at night. The 43-year-old female lost consciousness and suffered neck and back injuries.  A helicopter lowered water personnel 30 to 40 feet down to help rescue the woman. They put her on a backboard and extracted her, then taken to a hospital. She suffered major trauma but was able to talk to first responders, though she did not remember how she had fallen from the cliffs.  s

  • February 15, 2015Surfer rescued after fall on rocks; 2nd person also rescued

One rescue involved a surfer who fell onto some rocks at Sunset Cliffs. 2 people were rescued.

  • ~May 24, 2015Woman rescued after serious injuries in fall

A woman was injured when she fell 65 feet down a cliff at Sunset Cliffs in the area of Hill Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.  The 50 year old woman was airlifted to a hospital, having suffered serious head, neck and back injuries, but was conscious and talking when crews came to her rescue, according to reports from the scene.

  • July 12, 2015 –  Teen girl injured leg after slip at Sunset Cliffs

A teenage girl was injured when she slipped on the reef at Sunset Cliffs.  San Diego Lifeguards pulled the girl, 15, from the water and up the stairs onto Ladera Street near Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. She suffered a leg injury and was taken to UCSD Hospital for further evaluation.

  • August 7, 2015 –  Man rescued after jumping off Sunset Cliffs.

Lifeguards were called out to Sunset Cliffs to rescue a man who was injured while cliff diving.  A man landed facedown in the water after leaping from the cliffs and the jump knocked him unconscious. Bystanders rushed to pull him out of the ocean. By the time rescuers arrived, the man was alert and talking. Lifeguards, who strapped the patient in a stretcher, had to use a crane to lift him from the rocks. He was taken to the hospital for unknown injuries.

  • August 11, 2015Intoxicated man rescued after 80 foot fall off Sunset Cliffs

A man, 31, was intoxicated and ignored several “Danger Stay Back” barriers along the cliff when he fell at 4400 Ladera Street.  Several people found him unconscious at the bottom of the cliff, and he was  severely bleeding from a serious head injury suffered in the fall.  San Diego Fire airlifted him to UCSD Medical Center. He was reportedly awake, but did not remember the fall or even his own name.

  • August 30, 2015Missing swimmer’s body found near Santa Cruz Avenue

Brian Wilson, 23, went missing near Sunset Cliffs while swimming with a friend when he disappeared in the waters near Santa Cruz Avenue. His body was found in the area two days later.

  • September 11, 2015Injured cliff jumper rescued

Lifeguards rescued an injured man after he jumped off a bluff into the ocean at Sunset Cliffs, a spot popular for cliff-jumping even though it is illegal.  The jumper, who appeared to be in his 20s, had done a flip and hit the water face-first. Lifeguards secured him onto a backboard from a rocky outcropping below the 20-foot cliff, and hauled him up. The rescue took about half an hour, and he was taken to a trauma center by ambulance.


Over the course of these 11 years, there were 11 deaths and 21 people seriously injured from or in and around Sunset Cliffs and its waters. That’s still 3 deaths or serious injuries every year. Many of the cliff falls occurred near Osprey Street (the Arch) or Ladera Street at the end of the paved road. Many of those who were victims of the cliffs were from out of town. Nearly one-quarter.

As mentioned, there could be more as this is a work in progress. And we welcome any one who wishes to join this chronicling of the deathly Sunset Cliffs,


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie October 16, 2015 at 11:55 am

Already, I’m getting updates. Here’s a report of a motorist off the cliffs in March 2014.

Thanks South OB Girl


Donatello October 17, 2015 at 10:11 am

there was at least one in 2010. A guy fell off the sea wall at Ocean View Villas in February


Frank Gormlie October 20, 2015 at 10:26 am

Can you find any media documentation of it?


Bill Ray Drums October 19, 2015 at 11:40 am

We used to live at the end of Santa Cruz Ave. in the “Cabo Santa Cruz” condos and it was a regular happening that SDFD would drive their ladder truck over, extend the ladder and hoist someone up from down below who had the misfortune of misjudging the power of nature.

A lot of the injuries that occur down there are from people who slip on the algae and slime that covers a majority of that terrain.


PL Local October 27, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Update: 5 People rescued after becoming trapped South of PLNU.

Let’s explain what happened.

8 People, from out of town, visiting a place they have “heard” about, but don’t know where it is. They take off in search for this place when it IS low tide, but the tide is also coming up, and fast, and it is also a Super Moon that night.

3 of them stopped, warned the others, but the others kept going. It was smart for those 3 to stop, and not only stop, but to hang around and make sure their friends got back safe. If it wasn’t for that Call Box, those 5 other friends would probably be dead. Why do I say that. Because at PLNU, anywhere near Young Hall, you can’t even get 1 bar! I’ve called 911 from that spot only to get a reply from the operator saying “call us back with a better connection”.

Whenever I am down at Newbreak, or more down south, I always warn people of which way the tide is going, and about how long they have to explore. It only takes a few seconds, and can really save a life.


OB surfer October 29, 2015 at 10:23 am

Hopefully the Lifeguards and Fire Department billed these people for wasting our tax dollars rescuing them from their own stupidity.


Larry OB October 27, 2015 at 6:44 pm

Frank, I just emailed a couple of photos to you.

The incident was on 4/24/07 at a spot between No Surf Beach and Bird Sheet Rock. The brown sandstone cliff fell onto a grey siltstone reef, so the pile is easily defined. I took a photo from each direction. Use the people on top of the cliff for scale. Some of the boulders were as big as a car. Nobody was killed, but it was a few months before we knew that for sure.


Ronnie December 27, 2015 at 4:07 pm

People should be aware around the beach and the cliff. It is a dangerous area can cause a lot of injuries and deaths. Don’t show off your iPhone or iPad while you are going over the cliff. You will fall and no one can save you not even God.


John March 27, 2016 at 4:57 pm

Don’t forget, Sunset Cliffs is a perfect site for selfie death:

a sad way to go really, just lame..


John March 27, 2016 at 4:59 pm
JIM SMITH March 28, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Like everything else, the dreadnaughts are going to put an end to access to the whole shoreline when the city puts up a fence.


rick callejon March 28, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Note: dreadnaughts are battleships


CliffHanger March 28, 2016 at 6:27 pm

Any sense of out-of-town numbers vs locals and what they’re doing when injured? Seems the out-of-owners tend to fall off, jump in or get caught in tides and waves (i.e. don’t know the cliffs or understand how the ocean works) and locals mostly have bad luck with surf/diving or intentionally harm themselves. If the numbers favor that interpretation maybe you could educate/warn certain people better.
I’d agree the sirens going by are far more often (2015 sure looks busier here) than what you’ve been able to capture.
A simple (not metal) sign at Adair saying “Please Respect our Cliffs and Ocean” might give people pause and also put a small dent in the trash problem?


Lovey July 27, 2016 at 12:59 am

I think you hit the nail on the head. The signs need to be updated.
“Please Respect our Cliffs and Ocean” with a figure of falling person off a chunk of cliff, for the non English speaking tourists. And a “Beware of High Tide”.
Hey. I’m a native and haven’t ventured in that area since the late eighties, too dangerous. Frank thanks for the article spent about an hour reading about the various people and about the sewage problem, didn’t know it was that bad during rainfalls.
AND NEVER EVER DIVE into any water just too dangerous.


PL Local January 22, 2017 at 12:53 pm
Frank Gormlie January 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Heard of the rescue, but thanks for the tragic update.


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