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Man's disappearance turns Inspiration Point into a site of desperation

U.S. Coast GuardMichael Phelps
Joseph Sanchez, 18, disappeared after jumping into the ocean at Inspiration Point in Rancho Palos Verdes
Sanchez regularly jumped from Inspiration Point but was not considered a strong swimmer, friends say

Inspiration Point in Rancho Palos Verdes is both beautiful and powerful, drawing those who simply want to watch the crashing waves and those seeking the thrill of jumping from the cliff's edge.

But on Thursday, Inspiration Point was a site of desperation and grief for family and friends of Joseph Sanchez, who disappeared into its pounding surf a day earlier.

The 18-year-old went missing after jumping off a ledge into the water about a dozen feet below. Sanchez regularly jumped from Inspiration Point, but he was not considered a strong swimmer, his friends have said.

Sanchez went to the cove with three friends. But after he made the jump, he became trapped by the strong ocean current.

"His friends told him to hold on to the rocks as long as possible. They were going to get help," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Keith Mora.

Starting about 3 p.m. Wednesday, Los Angeles County lifeguards, sheriff's deputies and the U.S. Coast Guard combed the waters below the rocky outcrop, but to no avail. The effort continued through Thursday as friends and family watched anxiously from a tent atop the cliff, separated from the media and other onlookers.

Aside from trails carved into the side of the cliff, Inspiration Point gives the impression of being wild and untouched. Turquoise water meets a shoreline littered with rocks, which become larger and greater in number closer to the cove where Sanchez vanished. Sparse shrubbery stubbornly inhabits the dry, sandy rock cliff that abruptly meets the waves crashing at its base.

The area's primitive, isolated feel is perhaps what draws people to it.

"That's part of the attraction. It's a remote stretch," said L.A. County lifeguard Capt. Kyle Daniels.

Inspiration Point and its cove, a few hundred yards from Abalone Cove Shoreline Park, are popular with hikers and adventure-seekers. A ledge — not visible from the road — hangs over the water below the cliff, enticing divers. Videos and photos posted on social media of people swimming and jumping off the ledge have made that pursuit more popular over the last year, Mora said.

"It's like the main summer spot to go," said Gabriel Rivas, 17, who lives in the area and was out for a hike Thursday.

"It became an Internet sensation," he said. "This is the place to go to put something on the Internet."

But the allure of the cove can blind thrill-seekers to the dangers of churning surf, rocky outcroppings and unrelenting waves. Just since July 1, authorities have fielded 60 calls for assistance and made four rescues. "People underestimate how difficult it is to swim in it," Mora said.

Inside the 50-foot cove, water "acts like a washing machine," he said. The current and rip tide swirl the water within the cove, making it difficult to climb onto the surrounding rocks.

Even rescue divers have said the conditions are difficult. "Michael Phelps could have a hard time in that water," Daniels said.

There are only two lifeguards stationed over seven-mile stretch of beach. The closest lifeguard station is about a half-mile away, Daniels said. Because the area is a city beach, officials said they cannot prevent people from hiking the cliff or jumping into the ocean.

As the search for Sanchez wound down late Thursday afternoon, officials announced that patrols in the area will increase. Access to both Inspiration Point and neighboring Portuguese Point will be restricted until sundown Sunday to allow the search to continue. Searchers plan on returning to the water Friday.

caitlin.owens@latimes.com

Twitter: @caitlin__owens

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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U.S. Coast GuardMichael Phelps
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