As waves repeatedly crashed off Aliso Beach Park early Saturday afternoon, beachgoer Matthew Barker thought, "They couldn't have picked a worse day to go out in the water."
"They" being a 25-year-old Los Angeles woman and her male friend, who decided to brave what Barker called the most dangerous surf conditions he has seen in five years at the county-operated beach.
"They charged in through knee-deep water and started swimming out," Barker, 54, said. "They instantly started getting pounded by waves six, eight, 10 feet. I looked at my wife and said, 'Someone is going to die.'"
The man was pushed back to shore, where he grabbed his surfboard and headed back out to help the woman, Cynthia Hatfield. The surfer ended up in need of rescue himself.
Before it was over, there would be six who needed assistance back to shore, including the surfer, a good Samaritan and three lifeguards.
Barker, a Capistrano Beach resident, arrived at Aliso Beach ready to surf but decided against it after seeing the rough water.
The lifeguard tower wasn't staffed Saturday afternoon when the Laguna Beach Marine Safety Department received a 911 call at 2:22 p.m., and emergency workers headed to the location.
"A county lifeguard saw a gal way offshore pulled out in a rip current and requested help," Laguna Beach Marine Safety Capt. Tom Trager said. "We responded, and she was about 400 yards offshore."
Hatfield was wearing a wetsuit but didn't have a board, Trager said.
A bodysurfer who Trager said was an adept swimmer headed toward Hatfield to join the county lifeguard and the surfer in the rescue effort.
The two civilians who tried to save Hatfield were identified by authorities as 28-year-old Chase Newsome of Huntington Beach and Brennon Clark, a 25-year-old Orange County resident. But officials said they don't know which man is the bodysurfer to whom Trager was referring.
Both tried to help Hatfield back to shore.
With four already in the water, two Laguna Beach lifeguards swam out and safely attached Hatfield to a rescue flotation device, Trager said.
Hatfield drifted beyond a reef, where the waves were breaking, making it dangerous for lifeguards to swim through the shoreline toward land, Trager said.
"You can't risk bringing victims through the surfline with the rocky outcroppings. There's no way to predict where you're going to go," Trager said. "Witnesses reported they were still taking waves 15 feet on the head."
A county lifeguard made it in to the beach to request a Harbor Patrol boat, but one of the two civilians who had been helping got sucked into another current and was pulled south toward West Street Beach, Trager said.
A Laguna lifeguard already in the water swam out and rescued that swimmer, Trager said. Those two also ended up needing assistance to get back to shore, which came from a Harbor Patrol boat from Dana Point.
The boat arrived an hour after the initial call, and all swimmers made it safely on board with no injuries, Trager said.
Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. D.J. Haldeman was on a boat headed out of Newport Harbor, ready to assist the Dana Point boat if needed, but was called back when he heard all six people (Hatfield, Newsome, Clark and three lifeguards) made it safely on board the other vessel.
Haldeman said it helped that Hatfield was wearing a wetsuit to guard against possible hypothermia. The suit also acts as a flotation device, he said.
Barker praised the Laguna lifeguards for their aptitude and familiarity with the area.
"Laguna guards took charge," Barker said. "It looked like they kept a linked formation to make sure not to get washed in.
"If they [had] brought the girl and [the bodysurfer] in, lives would have been lost. That is how dangerous the surf was."
Barker said his wife asked if he wanted to go out in the water to try saving Hatfield, but he said conditions were too treacherous.
"You have to ask yourself if it's safe for you [to go out]," Barker said.