Last week, former game show host Peter Tomarken and his wife Kathleen died in a plane crash off the shoreline of a Santa Monica Beach.
As Tomarken’s single-engine airplane, a 1973 Beechcraft A-36 Bonanza, was nose-diving into the Santa Monica Bay — local lifeguards actually witnessed the crash as it happened.
They began their rescue preparations before his plane even made contact with the water’s surface.
“We had two lifeguards witness the plane go down into the water,” said Los Angeles County Lifeguard Captain Terry Harvey.
“We had Matt Rhodes, an ocean lifeguard specialist, who actually paddled out, free-dove it and touched the tail of the plane. He marked it right off the bat.
“As he went out to hit the water — Baywatch Redondo, Baywatch Santa Monica and Baywatch Del Rey all responded within five or ten minutes of each other.”
During this time, as local lifeguards were scrambling to the area of the accident, where two or possibly three passengers were presumably on board, other agencies were making preparations.
“In this case, we sent pretty much everything we had available,” said Petty Officer Shawn Warren of the United States Coast Guard.
“We sent a Coast Guard helo [helicopter] that launches from LAX. We also launched our small 41-foot boat UCB as well as diverting one of our Coast Guard cutters [the 87-foot Halibut, out of Marina del Rey].”
While the Coast Guard made its way to the situation, local lifeguards were still assiduously tending to the emergency.
Not long after Rhodes jumped into the 19-foot-deep water where the crashed plane settled, only a few hundred feet from shore, another lifeguard, Evan Cassidy, arrived with scuba equipment for both Rhodes and himself to search for survivors.
“They dove down,” Harvey said. “Evan Cassidy grabbed the male first — the only way he knew he was male was because of the shoes he was wearing.
“Cassidy was up first and yelled ‘body, body’ to the skipper. They went back down ñ Matt held the door [to the plane] open while Cassidy got the second body and brought her up to the surface.”
Tomarken’s wife Kathleen still had what lifeguards consider a “shockable heartbeat” and was brought to the Coast Guard vessel for an attempt at revival.
“I know they attempted to shock her and bring her back, but were unsuccessful,” said Harvey.
By the time Peter and Kathleen Tomarken were removed from the cockpit, the Coast Guard, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and some members of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary arrived to lend assistance with the wreckage itself.
In situations like these, there are always concerns of contaminants polluting the area and procedures are followed to minimize or prevent such a situation.
Local Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer Bob Searles was called upon by the Coast Guard to taxi a two-member team specializing in environmental matters from Sector Los Angeles at Terminal Island to evaluate the crash zone.
“The attempt was for our two passengers to be on scene when they pulled the plane from the water,” said Searles. “When we got there we saw the plane being recovered up onto the beach and we contacted the command center and determined that there had been no spill of significance.
“There was no pollution to be monitoring.”
The lifeguards had put floats underneath the plane and towed it onto shore. From this point, an investigation began into the causes and origins of the accident.
And while in this particular circumstance the final conclusions were tragic, the rescue agencies must evaluate their own performance.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t successful in rescuing these people,” Harvey said. “But we were on top of it within moments. It was a seamless operation with the multi agencies that were involved.”