In many ways, the breakwater at King Harbor Marina in Redondo Beach is an angler’s paradise. Its waters abound with seabass and bonito, and lobsters and crabs inhabit its rocks.
Most of the time, foamy waves lap peacefully against the boulders that make up the mile-long breakwater protecting the harbor. But occasionally, the swell picks up without warning, pounding the rocks with waves fierce enough to turn a station wagon on its side.
That, harbor police believe, is how Arcadia developer Kent Kaneshiro, 45, vanished from the jetty three months ago while digging for limpets on the ocean-facing side of the rocks.
If, as expected, the missing man is declared dead, he will be the second person in the past 1 1/2 years to be killed on the jetty. Every year, harbor police rescue about a dozen people who slip off the rocks or are thrown off by a wave.
Despite the dangers, dozens of people a day are attracted to the jetty for its good fishing and dramatic ocean vistas. Although some in the King Harbor community say authorities should do more to keep people off the breakwater, others regard the rocks as one of Redondo Beach’s most important recreational resources.
And while the jetty technically is off-limits to the public, neither city nor federal officials enforce the rules, partly due to disagreement over who should patrol the area.
“The (federal government) used to have it posted, but people go out there anyway,” Harbormaster Thomas Doty said.
“It’s an interesting situation because the harbor is considered a recreational resource and there’s always a conflict . . . about how much access the public should have to the area.”
It isn’t hard to understand the popularity of the breakwater, which curves offshore from King Harbor in a huge arc. For those who like crustaceans, the water’s edge is home to rock lobster, mussels, spider crabs and more.
And anglers can easily make their way along the rocks to spots where the ocean depth exceeds 60 feet--and fish abound. Off the end of the jetty, at the mouth of the harbor, is the tip of Redondo Canyon, an underwater trench that reaches depths of several thousand feet just a couple of miles offshore.
“It’s peaceful here,” said Los Angeles resident M.C. Johnson, 45, who fishes off the jetty several times a week. “All you catch on the pier is a lot of mackerel. Here, nobody’s hollering at you and there’s not too many lines out in the water.”
While the harbor side of the breakwater is usually clear and calm, the waves on the ocean side churn violently against the rocks, even in midsummer.
But big waves didn’t frighten Kent Kaneshiro, a Hawaiian native.
“He just loved the ocean,” his wife, Dora, 42, said Thursday, gingerly stepping over rocks along the top of the breakwater to the place rescuers found her husband’s belongings. “He gets peace and quiet here so he can fish and relax.”
Her husband journeyed to the jetty at least once every weekend, she said. Although he typically cast for fish, his real passion was descending to the water’s edge to find opihi, a species of limpet considered a delicacy in Hawaii. Opihi is called “the fish of death” in Hawaii because so many people are swept out to sea while prying it off rocks.
“There, see, those are the ones I’m talking about,” she said, pointing to a cluster of the black, cone-shaped shellfish.
With his back to the ocean, Kaneshiro would stand on rocks submerged in water up to his waist, wielding a rusty knife to cut the opihi from the rocks.
“Usually, if a wave is coming, my daughters warn him, ‘Daddy, daddy, watch out,’ ” she said.
But on the afternoon of May 3, Kaneshiro ventured to the breakwater alone. He told his wife and two teen-age daughters--who were too upset by the previous week’s Los Angeles riots to join him--to expect him home for dinner about 8.
He never returned.
Harbor officials eventually found his jacket, towel, knife, fishing pole, keys and half-filled bucket of opihi on the ocean side of the breakwater. Rescue divers never found his body.
Kaneshiro was not the first person to lose his life on the jetty. In February, 1991, Duc Ngoc Tran, 25, of Gardena also died while fishing after being toppled off the rocks by a wave.
Redondo Beach police have detailed records only on jetty deaths that occurred since 1988. But marina locals say at least one other death--and numerous injuries--have occurred off the breakwater in the past several years.
Dinah Lary, club manager of the King Harbor Yacht Club, said it isn’t uncommon to see parents bring young children onto the breakwater. In February, she saw a large wave knock a 3-year-old child into the water. Although harbor patrol officers were able to rescue the child, Lary worries that the next child might not be so lucky.
“It’s exciting and neat to watch the waves, but it is very scary and can be very dangerous,” Lary said. “They really should prohibit people from having access to (the breakwater), especially since most people don’t really know the impact of the water. It’s really a lot stronger than it looks.”
Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, which is heightening and widening the jetty so it will provide more protection in heavy storms, say they recently posted signs saying “no trespassing” and “slippery conditions” near the land entrance of the breakwater. But locals say the signs are routinely knocked over by waves or vandals.
No such signs were observed on the jetty during two visits to the area last week.
Because the breakwater lies within the city’s jurisdiction, federal officials say Redondo Beach Harbor Police must make sure no one trespasses on the jetty.
“It’s not our responsibility,” said Bob Armogeda, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Los Angeles division. “We don’t have a police force. It’s up to the city to assume the enforcement action.”
But Harbor Police disagree. Doty said his officers do not have the authority to enforce federal law and, as a result, are “caught in the middle of the whole debate.”
“It’s tough to prevent people from doing things on public land,” Harbor Police Sgt. Conrad Kauble said. “But in society, there has to be a place where a person takes responsibility for his own actions and the fact that there’s a danger out there.”
Many harbor locals are concerned that without signs warning of the dangers, breakwater visitors simply do not understand the risks they face.
Yacht Club Commodore Al Johnson and Les Guthrie of Marina Cove Ltd., which leases King Harbor from the city, asked the city in April to take steps to prevent people from walking on the breakwater.
In the letter, they pointed out that “over the past few years, several individuals have been killed on the breakwater and many have been injured.” They described the city’s policy of allowing trespassers on the jetty as one of “benign neglect” and suggested that the city erect a concrete block wall and 12-foot-wide gate to keep people away.
They also recommended that the city build a small viewing tower above nearby public restrooms for people who want to watch the waves.
The council rejected the viewing tower suggestion and never considered building a wall or gate.
Gerel Santiago, president of King Harbor Marina, says she believes the council’s inaction demonstrates that city leaders don’t value the lives of those who fish off the breakwater.
“The majority of the people who go out there are low-income people, Hispanics, Orientals, that don’t have a lot of influence,” Santiago said. “If somebody was in the upper middle class who got hurt, I think more things would happen. But these people are fishing to meet their own basic food needs. They are not part of the power system.”
But city officials deny the allegation, saying they can do little to keep people off the breakwater. They also say the city might be sued if its attempts to prevent trespassing failed.
Said Councilman Terry Ward: “If we were to put up a gate, do we then say, ‘This is a danger and you shouldn’t be out there and therefore, because we recognize this is a danger, we are liable if you get hurt out there’?
“Because of the storms, the city has endured tremendous lawsuits,” Ward said. “I keep asking, ‘What did we do wrong? Did we just happen to build our city in the wrong place?’ . . . Everything we do we have to be so careful that we’re not opening ourselves up to more lawsuits.”
Such debate has come too late for Dora Kaneshiro, who is now contending with insurance problems in addition to the loss of her husband.
Because rescuers were unable to recover her husband’s body, the state has not issued a death certificate. Without proof of the death, the two companies that sold her husband life insurance policies have refused to pay $600,000 in benefits.
Kaneshiro could face a long wait. Under state law, death certificates for missing persons are not issued until five years after the disappearance, according to her attorney.
But Kaneshiro says she needs the money now. Forced to sell her wedding band and antique furniture to pay some of her bills, she has since hired Los Angeles attorney Mark Beck to help collect on the policies.
Beck said such cases are uncommon. “It’s hard to find another lawyer who has been down this path,” he said.
On the jetty last week, Redondo Beach resident Jack Walker, 41, who regularly combs the rocks for crabs, said he believes Kaneshiro took too many risks. He said it should be up to those who use the breakwater, not the government, to avoid such accidents.
“The government prevents you from doing enough things for your own safety,” Walker said.
His fishing buddy, Jim Patterson, 50, put it this way: “I don’t believe in protectionism--the worst thing in the world. If people want to come out here, let them come out. If you’re a free person, you should have a right to take your chances.”
Although Kaneshiro ventured back to the jetty soon after her husband’s disappearance, she avoided returning again until Thursday.
Squinting in the sunlight as she climbed carefully over the boulders, she said she agrees that people should be allowed to take their own risks. But she said she is convinced her husband wouldn’t have been out on the jetty alone and so close to the waves if he had known of the dangers he faced.
“I just feel there should be some kind of warning,” she said, wiping away the tears. “I don’t want another family’s loved one to be taken away unnecessarily.”