Lifeguards searched late Friday to find an El Monte teenager presumed drowned in high surf and severe rip currents off Huntington Beach while a large group of friends watched in horror from the shore.
"He was a very poor swimmer and the surf was very high," said Lt. Mike Baumgartner, a marine safety officer for the city. "It's a traumatic experience and very emotional -- definitely not something we ever want to see."
The name of the 18-year-old was not immediately released at the request of his family.
Baumgartner said the incident began about 5 p.m. when the youth and one of his friends decided to enter the water near lifeguard Tower 17 off Beach Boulevard. "It was extremely rough," the lifeguard said. "The ocean floor was very uneven and we had large rip currents all over the beach."
The two waded into the water without flotation devices or wetsuits. Baumgartner said that when the 18-year-old found himself unable to touch the ocean floor, he panicked. "His friend made it to shore, dialed 911 and our units responded."
As the teenager's friends wept and hugged on the beach, more than 15 city and state lifeguards conducted a search using snorkels, two personal watercraft and a police helicopter.
The in-water search was called off about 6:20 p.m. as darkness fell and the lifeguards became hypothermic without wetsuits. Both the shoreline and helicopter search continued until about 8 p.m., and state beach lifeguard patrols were expected to continue until midnight, then resume this morning. "Based on witness statements," Baumbartner said, "we're relatively certain that he drowned. His girlfriend tried to swim out at some point and was unable to locate him. The water was really cold -- about 59 degrees -- with a 23-mile-an-hour wind blowing out of the west."
At lifeguard headquarters Friday evening, the boy's parents sat slumped in the lobby, listening attentively to lifeguards and police officers while about 20 friends sat on a curb outside, crying and huddling for comfort. Later, the parents were escorted to a pickup that took them back to the beach, where the search continued.
Baumgartner said even higher surf is expected today, with swells reaching 12 feet.
Staff writer Zeke Minaya contributed to this report.