A friend of a windsurfer who drowned off the Ventura County coast on Memorial Day has claimed that the 36-year-old Mussel Shoal man might have been saved if county sheriff's deputies and firefighters had responded promptly and in force to calls for help.
James L. Kinninger, a friend of Michael Kelley, whose body was found on the shoreline the next day, asks in a letter to the County Board of Supervisors for an investigation into rescue efforts by county agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The County Fire and Sheriff's departments "didn't respond in coordination, and had somebody gotten down there right when they were called, they probably could have saved him," Kinninger, a retired Los Angeles Fire Department captain, said Thursday in an interview.
Of the three agencies notified of the emergency, only the Coast Guard responded in force, according to Kinninger, who said he spent much of Monday and Tuesday attempting to assist in a rescue.
Kelley, a veteran windsurfer from Hawaii, sailed into rough seas at Mussel Shoal late Monday morning and disappeared a few minutes later about half a mile off shore, a neighbor who was watching Kelley told The Times.
An unidentified witness contacted the County Fire Department, which in turn placed an emergency call to the U.S. Coast Guard at 11:59 a.m., said Petty Officer Jeff Gunn.
"I'm sure that since Ventura fire got first word, they sent all their resources," said Gunn on Thursday. "Normally in a case like this, that is what they would do. But we don't monitor their movements."
In fact, the Fire Department apparently did not dispatch a rescue team, said spokesmen at department headquarters and at nearby Rincon Fire Station.
The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter from Los Angeles and a ship from Channel Islands Harbor. The Coast Guard also called the Sheriff's Department for assistance at 12:11 p.m., about 11 minutes after receiving the first call, Gunn said.
The Sheriff's Department said it logged the request at 12:19 p.m. and sent a single one-deputy cruiser to see if it could spot the swimmer or take the statements of witnesses.
The deputy who responded spent about 1 1/2 hours at the beach, Lt. Gary Backman of the Sheriff's Department, said. He said the Coast Guard had not identified any witnesses to interview. The Coast Guard cutter and helicopter used marine frequencies and were unable to communicate with the sheriff's deputy on shore, both agencies said.
"We did what they asked us to do," Backman said. "They were the lead agency."
The sheriff's search-and-rescue team was not dispatched until Kelley's body washed up on rocks the next day, Backman said.
"Normally our search-and-rescue team doesn't go out unless there's a body spotted in the water or a vessel in the water," the lieutenant said. "We wouldn't have them go out and just cruise the ocean to see if they can spot something."
Searchers in a Coast Guard helicopter spotted Kelley's sail and harness at 1:17 p.m., Gunn said.
Robert Brunner, a neighbor of Kelley's, said he had been watching the man windsurf at about noon, then lost sight of him. After the Coast Guard helicopter arrived, Brunner said he roamed the beach trying to locate his neighbor.
Brunner also drove to the Rincon Fire Station for help, he said, but could get no one to join him to try to spot Kelley's body.
"I was the only guy out on the Rincon for five or six hours looking for this kid," Brunner said. "It was sad."
The next morning, Brunner said, he was out searching again when he became aware of a gathering crowd.