Sailors rescue family after van is pushed from ferry

NEWPORT BEACH — The tide was just high enough to bring his wooden dinghy up to the seawall. Skip Staats likes to sit atop the wall and sip coffee in the morning sun.

Had it been any more shallow, he wouldn't have been relaxing next to the Balboa Island Ferry, and a visiting family of four from Taiwan could have drowned.

Staats, 46, rescued three members of the Chang family from their sinking Dodge minivan Friday morning after a Mercedes, driven by a Balboa Island resident, accidentally rammed it from behind.

Another passing fisherman pulled the fourth family member to safety.

After seeing the silver minivan fall into the harbor, he motored up to it and saw it was floating with the water up to its windowsills. As he approached the rear driver's side, he saw a girl, 6-year-old Ping Chung, strapped into a child's safety seat.

"Get the girl," her father, Kuo-Hsuan, 36, told him calmly from the front seat.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I hope she's easy to unbuckle,'" said Staats, a reserved surfer and sailor.

He lifted her straight into his tiny boat. The van was floating at an ideal depth — Staats' boat rails were in line with the windowsills. The minivan's windows were down because, like many families, the Changs wanted to fully take in the idyllic harbor view.

Staats then pulled the boy, 4-year-old Ko Chan, from his seat. Kuo-Hsuan, with Staats' help, came out last, crawling out feet-first from the driver's window.

By that time, Staat's tiny boat was full. Another fisherman who had also heard and responded to the crash, James Donoghue, took his place.

The mother had climbed over to the driver's side, said Donoghue, 47. He pulled the petite 37-year-old Lung-Hsn Chu into his roughly 25-foot open-bow skiff. Less than a minute later, the car sank about 15 feet to the bottom.

Donoghue said trapped air from the van shot violently to the surface.

The most amazing part of the rescue?

All the family members were pulled out completely dry, except for the mother, whose sneakers were slightly wet, Donoghue said.

The water temperature was just under 60 degrees.

Firefighters assessed the family and found they were all uninjured, Fire Department spokeswoman Jennifer Schulz said. Lifeguards also dove to the bottom to ensure there were no others trapped in the car.

Later, police drove the family to the rental car agency and they continued their vacation. The Newport Beach police unions also paid for a replacement rental car for the Changs, according to a news release.

The Changs declined to be interviewed by the media, Schulz said.

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'He's the real hero'

While the Changs remained calm even in their traumatic situation, the scene on the shore was frantic.

"Everyone was screaming," said Lori Williams, 50, who was taking a class at Pilates by the Sea, which faces the Balboa Island boardwalk. She had rushed to the ferry landing to watch.

Staats said although people were yelling to call 911, he just hopped into his boat and reacted. It took him 30 seconds to reach the sinking minivan.

Staats, who runs an environmental nonprofit, had planned to spend his day washing his larger sailboat moored in the bay. Donoghue had taken the day off work to go shark fishing in his new boat.

"It was fortunate timing for me, and it was quick response for Skip," Donoghue said.

Sgt. Jeff Foster from the Orange County Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol agreed, pointing to Staats: "He's the real hero."

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A standard rear-end traffic accident

Police received a call at about 9 a.m. that someone had rear-ended a car on the ferry, which pushed it into the water.

According to authorities and eyewitness accounts, Balboa Island resident Lisa Rene-Blaisure Waite, 47, drove a black Mercedes onto the ferry, and instead of braking, she accelerated her vehicle and hit the family's minivan. The minivan was hit with enough force to propel it into the water and out about 30 feet from the ferry dock.

Waite said her accelerator stuck, according to Schulz. Police said alcohol was not a factor in the crash.

Before her friends hurried her away from the scene, Waite began explaining the accident by saying, "My foot … "

Witnesses said that the Mercedes engine was still engaged in drive, with its rear wheels spinning as its front end hung over the edge of the ferry. Its undercarriage apparently caught the edge of the wooden platform. Eventually, sheriff's deputies removed the car with a crane.

Police are investigating the crash as a standard rear-end traffic accident, which happened to be on the water, according to Newport Beach police Lt. Bill Hartford.

Emergency responders from at least three local agencies coordinated the recovery operation.

Based on police's preliminary investigation, the ferry operators followed all the "appropriate and accurate" safety precautions, Hartford said.

By 11 a.m. the ferry was again in operation. The Sheriff's Department pulled the minivan out of the water about 12:30 p.m.

During the recovery, a Harbor Patrol boat monitored the scene in case any fuel or other fluids seeped from the minivan. Foster said responders never had a reason to use their hazardous materials containment boom.

If police find any safety deficiencies with the ferry's procedures, ferry owner Seymour Beek said he would reevaluate them. Beek, who appeared shaken but relieved, came to the scene after the accident.

He could remember two other times that cars had fallen into the water. Both were in the 1980s, he said, and no one was hurt either time.

"I just remembered, it's Friday the 13th," he joked later, gaining his composure.

 

— Staff Writer Joseph Serna also contributed to this report.

 

mike.reicher@latimes.com

Twitter: @mreicher

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