Two men, linked to the water off Catalina Island in life and death

The two men who died on Catalina Island after last week's storm leave behind a small and shaken community

As the wind howled outside the Marlin Club that night, Pretty Boy darted inside.

P.B., as many islanders liked to call him, was soaked and shaking. Randy Jackson, who manages inventory at the bar, immediately sensed something was wrong.

The dog was usually accompanied by his owner, Bruce Ryder.

Jackson tried calling Ryder's cellphone. No answer. Then he dialed the Harbor Patrol.

The pummeling waves from last Tuesday's storm had battered the harbor, damaging or destroying at least five boats and leading to the deaths of Ryder and another man, Tim Mitchell. Ryder, who had lived on a boat in the harbor, was found floating in the water the following morning, while Mitchell was believed to have been killed when he became pinned between a boat he'd been trying to save and a concrete platform on shore.

Their deaths have left the small island town shaken.

"We're not used to that," said Harry Stiritz Jr., a former city treasurer. "We lose boats every now and again. Not people."

Around 10:30 on the night of the storm, dive shop owner Bob Kennedy sat in the Harbor Patrol office at the end of the pier. The winds had come up quickly and unexpectedly. Emergency reports flooded in, but so far his 65-foot boat, among the biggest moored in the harbor, appeared safe.

Kennedy decided to head home but got a phone call on the way: The vessel he'd owned for roughly 30 years, King Neptune, was loose.

There seemed to be no way to board it safely, Kennedy said. He didn't know that Mitchell, his employee and friend, was already on it. Mitchell is believed to have been killed while trying to secure the vessel, from which he'd taught scuba lessons countless times.

Kennedy and his wife, owners of the long-established Catalina Scuba Luv, had hired Mitchell on the spot when he stopped into the shop just off Avalon's main harbor-facing road about a decade ago to see if they needed a dive instructor.

Mitchell, who was from New Zealand, became their top teacher and guide.

"If I knew he was there, I knew everything was fine," Tina Kennedy recalled.

Patron Linda Zukowski took her first dive with Mitchell on her birthday, July 11, in 2007. After that, whenever she visited the island, she dived only with him.

Mitchell knew how to find an octopus under a rock. He would tug on Zukowski's fin to show her a sea bass. Once, when the wildlife was sparse, she recalled turning to see him lying on his back, facing the surface with his arms crossed over his chest, taking in the beauty.

"I trust my life with him under water," Zukowski said.

Mitchell recently became an American citizen and subsequently a Harbor Patrol assistant. The day of the storm, he picked up the Kennedys after their return from vacation and told them about the windy weather report. He was scheduled to report for duty at the Harbor Patrol later that afternoon, Tina Kennedy said.

When Kennedy went to survey the damage, she could tell someone was in the water by the way people were talking and pointing. She turned to a lieutenant, she said, demanding, "I need to know who's in the water."

It was Mitchell. He is thought to have died after trying to leap from the boat near some concrete steps that led up to the shore. The waves had apparently pushed the boat toward the shore, and Mitchell's body became pinned between the vessel and the steps.

Ryder's body was found floating in the harbor around 7 a.m. Wednesday by patrol officers. His autopsy has yet to be performed, but storm conditions appear to be a factor in his death, said Sgt. John Fredendall, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Ryder had lived on a boat, Ocean Ryder II, with his dog for at least the last few years. Like many on the island, he bounced between jobs. He was a fisherman, a captain and a dive instructor.

Like Mitchell, Ryder had worked for Scuba Luv at various points, having known Bob Kennedy since third grade. The two men were linked by the King Neptune and considered the Kennedys family.

Their deaths have left the island town of fewer than 4,000 residents "numb" with grief, said Mary Schickling, who lives on the island and knew both men well.

"People were just zombied, absolutely stunned," she said.

Mitchell and Ryder exemplified members of the tight-knit community, Avalon City Manager Ben Harvey explained.

"People here watch out for each other, and they're very intertwined in each other's daily lives," he said. "Families blend together."

But living on an island also requires residents to be resilient, hardy and strong, qualities that shone in the storm's aftermath, Harvey said.

On Friday, Bob Kennedy and his family, friends and employees gathered around a makeshift memorial along the harbor front. Many wore wetsuits and helped pick up the pieces of the vessels scattered in the water below.

"When you haven't had a big [storm] like this in a long time, it makes you realize how destructive they can be," said Greg Harris, who stopped by to share his condolences."They make you humble."

That night, at the Marlin Club, patrons stroked and patted P.B.

Though Ryder had stopped drinking, he continued to pass many hours at the bar. He was likable, kind and loved to share stories about fishing, friends said. As he entered sobriety, which helped him turn his life around, "that dog was his life and his life support," Jackson said.

The night of the storm, Jackson believes P.B. was trying to tell them Ryder was in trouble. But there was little to be done, except give P.B. some food and water.

The bar owner and his staff have assured the community that the Marlin Club will be P.B.'s new home.

emily.foxhall@latimes.com

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