The search for a man who was swept out to sea while helping a Santa Maria pastor during a baptism ceremony at a coastal park in northern Santa Barbara County was suspended Monday.
Crews from multiple agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard had been searching for 43-year-old Benito Flores by sea and air since Sunday morning, when he and a group of people participating in the baptism were reportedly dragged out into the surf by two large waves at Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve.
“A big wave came and took Benito,” Pastor Maurigro Cervantes of the Jesus Christ Light of the Sky church told KEYT-TV. “I tried to [pull] him out — he was heavy — and then another big wave came.”
Flores was the only one who was unable to “self-rescue," Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Diondray Wiley told the news station.
After an extensive search by emergency teams failed to find Flores by nightfall, crews started anew Monday, responding to a false report of a body floating in the surf line that turned out to be fishing buoys, Fire Capt. David Sadecki posted on Twitter.
Two helicopters searched for an hour Monday but with no success, he added.
Sadecki told the Santa Maria Times after the search was called off that it was highly unlikely anyone could survive more than 30 minutes in the cold ocean water.
The preserve, just south of the town of Guadalupe, has sand dunes that tower 550 feet high, the tallest on the West Coast. Park authorities warn on their website that the surf at the spot can be “very dangerous.”
The Santa Maria church performs similar baptisms two or three times a year, Cervantes told the newspaper. He said there were about 25 people at the ceremony.