While a friend looked on in horror, a 30-year-old woman was killed Sunday when a massive wave swept her off a rocky ledge and into the churning surf of an underwater cave at Three Arch Bay, authorities said.
Powerful currents and a riptide forced Lynn Scollard of Huntington Beach under the water for more than an hour before firefighters and lifeguards were able to spot her body a short distance south of where she entered the water, Laguna Beach police said.
Scollard and her friend, John Griffin, 25, of Huntington Beach, were walking through tide pools inside a sea cave when a set of large waves crashed in on them, said Deputy Coroner Jacque Berndt. "It took their feet out from underneath them."
Berndt said Griffin tried to grab her, "but she went down in the hole."
Scollard became the first person to drown off Orange County beaches this summer. But the heavy surf, caused by a Pacific storm system, on Saturday killed 68-year-old Fong Lee of Santa Ana, who was fishing off a jetty at Marineland Cove on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Lifeguards in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Huntington State Beach alone made more than 250 rescues on Sunday due to the high surf and dangerous riptide conditions, authorities said. All three beaches were under yellow flag conditions urging caution in the water.
That same storm system brought 6- and 7-foot waves to some South County beaches and prompted lifeguards Sunday to issue a red flag warning in the area of Thousand Steps Beach, said Michael Gaughan, co-director of U.S. Ocean Safety, a contract lifeguard service that patrols South Laguna and Three Arch Bay.
Area residents, however, complained Sunday that they saw no warning flags and that no signs had been posted advising beach-goers about the potential danger of sudden wave action in the rocky cave.
"It was really tragic," Gaughan said. "She and her male friend were with a group of people walking in a cave area. They were trying to run back because they decided it wasn't safe out there."
About 3:15 p.m., Gaughan said, a set of waves came through that knocked Scollard off the rocks and into a cave blowhole, where the turbulent surf held her under. The area is located near 10th Avenue.
Griffin raced to a nearby lifeguard tower and yelled for help. But the rough surf hampered lifeguards, Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol deputies from Dana Point, firefighters and paramedics in their search.
About 4:25 p.m., rescuers finally spotted her body underwater, Laguna Beach fire and police officials said. Again, the same high waves and riptides kept rescuers from entering the crashing surf.
It wasn't until the force of the tidal action threw Scollard's body into a shallower pool that four firefighters were able to jump in and pull her out.
"We were in an area where there was a blowhole, and from where we were . . . the water level would rise and drop drastically with each wave," Laguna Beach Fire Capt. Steen Jensen said. "We were pretty sure she was being pushed underneath the rocks and was being held there by the waves."
Jensen said Scollard's body, clad in a green bikini, was badly battered by the pounding in the surf. She had long, dark brown hair, a fair complexion, was of average height and build, and weighed about 125 pounds.
A rickety wooden staircase leading to the bluffs above was deemed unsafe to handle the weight of the firefighters and Scollard's body. A special basket rig had to be used to haul her body up the side of the cliff.
Meanwhile, residents complained that the body lay on a blue tarp in full view of the homes above for more than an hour.
During the search and rescue effort, more than 70 people were huddled on the sandy beach south of an area known as Thousand Steps.
"Everybody standing there knew there was somebody drowning," said Jane LaRoche of Monarch Beach, who was visiting her friend Kelly Winkles, a resident of Thousand Steps Beach.
Nearby, a red sign reads: "WARNING . . . Waves are powerful. They can badly injure you."
Winkles, 32, described the area where Scollard drowned as a sea cave about half a mile south of Thousand Steps Beach. The cave itself is about 12 feet high and fills completely with water at high tide.