Instead of celebrating at a bar with friends or around the dinner table with family, Gene Petersen celebrated his 66th birthday this week at Western Medical Center, where he's being treated for a spinal injury he suffered while at The Wedge.
The Seal Beach native is part of a tight-knit crew of bodysurfers who frequent the renowned by dangerous Newport Beach surf spot. Most days, Petersen can be found in the tumultuous waters, said friend and fellow Wedge regular Tim Burnham.
About 10 bodysurfers, bodyboarders and other beachgoers assisted in the effort to save Petersen from the March 30 accident, according to former Laguna Beach lifeguard Tyler Stanaland.
Bigger swells at The Wedge early in the spring and summer season created a shallow sandbar, and as Petersen was riding a large wave that day, he was tossed onto the sandbar. He broke three vertebra and nine ribs, and one of his lungs collapsed, Burnham and Stanaland said.
Petersen became momentarily breathless but, in a stroke of luck, he was face up, and able to breathe, float and mouth for help, Burnham said. He took two more waves before he caught anyone's attention.
Corona del Mar High School student Hunter Wetton and another bodyboarder spotted Petersen in the water.
"I swam over and helped the other guy get him out," Hunter told Corona del Mar Today. "He was in shock, I think. He was calling to us, but he could barely speak. I knew he was pretty messed up."
Stanaland said he raced over after seeing the other two pulling Petersen to shore.
Hunter, who had junior lifeguard training, knew to hold Petersen's head steady, Stanaland said. Meanwhile, Stanaland said he packed sand around Petersen's back and neck to keep him stable until help arrived.
"We held his neck to make sure he wasn't moving, and I yelled, 'Call 911! Call 911!,'" Hunter told CdM Today.
When Newport Beach firefighters arrived, Stanaland gave them a rundown of what happened.
Burnham said Petersen, his normally active friend, isn't happy about his recent idleness in the Santa Ana hospital.
"He's a pretty mobile guy," Burnham said. "If he's not at The Wedge, he's driving his Porsche in the desert somewhere 150 miles per hour."
Petersen is the second of The Wedge's bodysurfing crew to recently suffer serious injuries there. In 2009, Newport Harbor High School graduate and aspiring professional tennis player Robert Khoury was paralyzed after an injury to his spine.
Hunter's involvement in the rescue is the second by a CdM high school student since senior Josh Wills-King was credited for rescuing a drowning man off Big Corona in October, according to CdM Today.
— Amy Senk of Corona del Mar Today also contributed to this report.