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Huntington Beach Surfer’s Last Day ‘Was a Perfect Day’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joshua Dean Hall just wanted to catch a few more waves before sundown.

He had surfed especially well in practice Thursday morning and appeared to be on the verge of making the 12-man traveling squad of the Huntington Beach High School surfing team, winner of 16 national championships.

But after returning to the beach to surf on his own that afternoon, he drowned when he slammed into a concrete piling in an attempt to ride a wave beneath Huntington Beach Pier.

The accident has left the popular teenager’s family and friends reeling with grief.

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“The whole surfing community is hurting,” said Andy Verone, coach of the high school surfing team. “The kids are devastated. It’s absolutely shocking.”

When he died, the 16-year-old Hall was riding a brand-new surfboard bought for him by his grandmother, Phyllis Hall. The teen’s surfing had improved dramatically over the summer, which he spent training hard, his coach said.

His chances of breaking out of a surfing class of about 100 into the elites were promising, especially after dazzling Verone during the team’s first practice that morning, his coach said.

“He was surfing so well in the morning and the waves were perfect,” Verone said. “He was the last one out of the water, and he came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to make the team.’ I told him, ‘You’re ripping out there.’ ”

The teenager lived just a few blocks away from the school with his paternal grandparents, who were his legal guardians and biggest supporters.

“He was so pumped up and excited and said he was going to surf some more,” his grandfather, Donald Hall, said. “He went down there to practice, to execute his dream. That’s what he was doing when the end came.”

Hall was attempting to “shoot the pier” Thursday when the accident occurred. The maneuver, which is legal and quite common, involves attempting to surf through the pilings that hold up Huntington Beach Pier.

“Sometimes people miscalculate, and there are risks involved,” Huntington Beach Marine Safety Lt. Steve Davidson said. “Over the years, there have been a lot of broken surfboards, a lot of cuts and bruises. But to my knowledge, we’ve never had an incident of this severity.”

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Davidson said the tragedy occurred about 5 p.m. under confusing circumstances.

Another surfer had seen Hall hit the piling but couldn’t reach him because of heavy surf. Instead, the surfer ran to a nearby lifeguard stand to report the incident.

Lifeguards monitoring another surfer whose board had broken while trying to clear the pilings during the same set of waves mistakenly believed the two incidents were one and the same.

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“The eyewitness to the collision ran to the tower and said he saw someone hit the pier; the tower said they had been watching him and he was OK,” Davidson said. “Neither of them realized there was a second incident at roughly the same time.”

Hall was in the water for at least two minutes before another surfer noticed his board drifting in the water. He paddled over, pulled on the leash and discovered Hall still attached to it. He summoned help from other surfers, including a Solona Beach firefighter, but it was too late.

Verone said the surfing team and the school were hard hit by the loss.

“He was a great kid, one of the happiest kids I’ve ever seen,” the coach said. “He had a lot he had to overcome, and he chose surfing instead of the wrong ways in life. I was very proud of him.”

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The product of a broken home, Hall came to live with his grandparents in April 1995 while he was an eighth-grader and quickly learned to surf.

“He fell in love with Huntington Beach, and my belief is that Huntington Beach fell in love with him too,” Donald Hall said. “It really became his hometown. This was his place, and this is where he was meant to be.”

The grandparents were devoted to their grandson and said he had grown more mature and focused during his final summer.

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“He was so good to us,” the grandfather said. “He touched a lot of people, and I think that really was the magic of the boy. He had a lot of wonderful gifts, and he loved life.”

The teenager had been dating Amy Hazen for a year. The couple met at the beach two years ago. The grandfather described the boy as “true blue” when it came to his girlfriend, often giving her flowers, cards and gifts.

He had called Hazen just before heading back to the beach the afternoon he died to exult about the first day of school and the great form he was in during practice that morning.

“His last day with us was a perfect day,” Donald Hall said tearfully. “He had a new board, he loved life. He was on cloud nine. Maybe that’s the best time to go.”

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Since the drowning, a grief-stricken Donald Hall has kept a list of the names of six men who tried to save his grandson’s life and said he is deeply grateful for their efforts.

He said he doesn’t want his grandson’s accident to tarnish the sport.

The grandparents established a scholarship memorial fund in the young surfer’s memory to be awarded to students “committed to the sport and committed to helping others,” Donald Hall said.

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Contributions can be sent to Huntington Beach High School.

Services will be at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at First Christian Church in Huntington Beach. Hall will be buried wearing his surf team warmup suit and with his surfboard leash.

Wednesday morning, a group of about 50 surfers will hold a traditional Hawaiian ceremony that involves paddling out to the end of the pier.

“It’s the highest honor that you can give” a surfer, his grandfather said.

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