State Park Ranger Anthony F. Hoffman shone his flashlight over the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway one winter evening and saw the accident that had pulled him out of his station in nearby Sycamore Cove.
A car had plunged from the road into the ocean, landing upside-down. One man clung to the car, and he was in trouble.
“Every time a surge would come in, that car would slam into the rocks,” Hoffman said.
The ranger climbed down the embankment and jumped into the surf. He pulled the driver, Orlander Drake of Isla Vista, to safety and tried unsuccessfully to rescue a passenger who was trapped upside-down in his seat belt inside the flooded car.
For his courage in the rescue of Jan. 6, 1994, Hoffman received a state parks department award recognizing acts of heroism by rangers. The Thousand Oaks resident accepted the award during a ceremony Monday that drew family, friends and fellow rangers to the Borchard Park Community Center in Newbury Park.
Donald W. Murphy, director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, told guests that Hoffman’s bravery and devotion were typical of park employees.
“I can’t tell you the countless hours spent by rangers and lifeguards effecting rescues, many without recognition,” he said.
During the ceremony, Hoffman also received commendations from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and the city of Thousand Oaks, the latter presented by Mayor Jaime Zukowski.
Hoffman’s mother, Liz Hoffman-DeNeui, said her son’s willingness to protect others from danger was apparent at an early age. When he was 16, he rescued a 3-year-old boy who had fallen into the family’s pool in Canoga Park. Hoffman-DeNeui was sitting nearby, talking with friends, when the child fell in.
“All of a sudden, Tony shot by us and jumped in the pool,” she said. “He heard the splash, and he was in the pool.” The child was recovered unharmed.
The rescue didn’t go as well during the Pacific Coast Highway incident. The car’s passenger, Thomas Gamble of Santa Barbara, was pronounced dead at the scene.
According to the California Highway Patrol, the northbound car had just passed another at the time of the accident. As Drake shifted back into the right-hand lane, the car strayed into the shoulder and spun out of control.
To reach the car, Hoffman had to scramble down a 75- to 100-foot embankment, then jump into the surf slamming against the rocky shore.
Although he recognized the danger of the rescue attempt, the eight-year veteran said he wasn’t doing anything rash by jumping in the water after Drake.
“I’ve got two beautiful kids and a lovely wife to come home to, so I don’t think I take unnecessary risks,” he said.
Hoffman’s supervisor, John Falk, said all rangers who work along the twisting stretch of PCH have to deal with potentially hazardous accidents, often caused by drivers watching the scenery rather than the road.
“A few people have called me a hero,” he said. “I don’t know if I feel like one, but I work with a lot of heroes.”