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Inspiration Point becomes place of grief for missing swimmer's family

Inspiration Point, where missing cliff-jumper is presumed dead, becomes place of grief for waiting family

Inspiration Point in Rancho Palos Verdes was a point of desperation and grief Thursday for family and friends of Joseph Sanchez, the 18-year-old who went missing the day before after jumping from the cliff's edge into the pounding surf about a dozen feet below.

Presumed dead, Sanchez regularly jumped from the cliff, but was not considered a strong swimmer, his friends said. Fellow cliff jumper, Toogee Zepeda, told KTLA-TV that he jumped in after his friend when it became clear he was in trouble, but every time they were able to catch a breath, "another wave kept piling on top of us."

“I told him, 'Hold on to this rock. Whatever you do, don’t let go of this rock,'" Zepeda recalled telling his friend before swimming away for help.

Starting about 2:55 p.m. Wednesday, lifeguards, sheriff's officials and the U.S. Coast Guard combed the waters below and around the rocky outcrop, but to no avail. The effort continued through Thursday as friends and family watched anxiously from under a tent atop the cliff, separated from the media and other onlookers.

The cove, a few hundred yards from Abalone Cove Shoreline Park, is popular among hikers and adventures seekers. A ledge -- invisible from the road -- hangs above a gorge in the rocks in the water around the cliff, from which people frequently jump to the water below -- a drop of between 10 and 15 feet depending on the tide.

"It's like the main summer spot to go," said Gabriel Rivas, 17, who lives in the area and was hiking around the cliff Thursday. He and friends had intended to jump from the ledge, unaware of the search effort.

While the area has been known for it's hiking and views, swimming and jumping off the ledge has become more popular over the past year after videos and images of the activities flooded social media, said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Keith Mora.

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

But the beauty and allure of the cove can blind thrill-seekers to the dangers of churning surf, rocky outcrops, a cave and unrelenting waves.

Four major rescues have been performed in the area since July 1, and authorities have fielded 60 calls for assistance.

"People underestimate how difficult it is to swim in it," Mora said.

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

"It's an exhausting effort to get out of it, once you're in it," Mora said.

Even the rescue divers have said the conditions are difficult.

"Michael Phelps could have a hard time in that water," said L.A. County lifeguard Capt. Kyle Daniels.

Because the area is a city beach, officials said they cannot prevent people from hiking the cliff, or from jumping off into the ocean.

On the stretch of beach, there are only two lifeguards stationed over seven miles. The closest lifeguard station is about a half-mile away, Daniels said.

For breaking news in Los Angeles and the Southland, follow @Caitlin__Owens, or email her at caitlin.owens@latimes.com.

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