WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME: COLE ORTEGA'S TRAGIC ACCIDENT
Sunday morning had a beautiful beginning; the air was warm, the sky clear, the wind lightly offshore and the waves clean. It was going to be a great beach day. The Ortega family was up early, it was their last day camping. They had come out for the 4th of July weekend on Thursday; late arrivals to the Surf Club of Bend’s annual get together. Each year the families and friends from Central Oregon gather at the Cape Kiwanda RV Park for the week leading up to the holiday. The beach community of Pacific City usually put on their fireworks show on the 2nd or the 3rd so the Bend group could watch it, drive home and still catch their home town display on the 4th. The camping trip is a tradition the families have enjoyed for many years. Charlie and Sheri Ortega had work obligations while daughter Chelsea and son Cole were also occupied with their summer trip to Mt. Hood for the High Cascade Snowboard Camp. This conflicted with the larger group’s schedule but rather than miss the gathering completely, the Ortega’s planned to come late and stay on a few extra days. In contrast to the high and dry desert climate, the beach scene is always a welcome respite for the entire group. This is especially so for Charlie and Sheri who had spent most of their lifetime on the beaches of California and Hawaii before moving to Oregon and starting their family.
Both Chelsea and Cole are avid snowboarders. The Mt. Bachelor Ski Area, 15 miles from Bend is their home mountain. Cole is a member of the Mt. Bachelor Grom Squad, part of the MBSEF [Mt. Bachelor Snow Education Foundation] snowboard program and a regular competitor in slope style and half pipe events. In the early spring, he took first place in the 2008 Snowboard Nationals at Copper Mountain, Colorado. For someone entertaining possibilities of snowboarding as a profession, a National win is a significant achievement. His dad, Charlie, a one time pro golfer had passed on some of those skills as well. Cole played golf well beyond his age. For a few of his earlier years, he also had shown great promise at baseball. When baseball practice began to cut into his snow time, he chose to concentrate on the snowboarding. Like many 14 year olds, Cole was not really thinking about career choices; he was just having fun with his developing athleticism. A weekend of surfing seemed a safe and enjoyable way to unwind from the 50′-60′ jumps at the snowboard camp.
The surf was forecast to rise throughout the day. The light wind conditions of the previous days had left the water temperature moderate if one was a regular Pacific Northwest surfer. Any surfer from So Cal or Hawaii would have thought the 50-degree temps to be arctic cold. As the tide rose from the early low water, the waves would rise with it. It was ideal for surfers. Charlie told Cole, Chelsea and her boyfriend, Keenan to get their last session in while he and Sherry packed up the camping gear.
Pacific City is home to the Oregon dory fleet. In the summer when the surf is small and the weather mild, the fishermen launch their boats through the waves in the early morning before the winds pick up. On a busy day, as many as 50 boats or more will ply the waters off Cape Kiwanda hoping to get lucky. When they are done, they drive their boats in through the surf and beach them high up on the sand where they can back their trailers down close. Sometimes the surf is too big for the boats where the wrong wave can turn a fun outing into a nightmare in the blink of an eye. A boat, any boat, in rough shore pounding waves is not a good thing. This Sunday, the day after the 4th of July celebrations, was a recipe for a disaster. The early morning low tide had deflated the swell, masking its potential for mayhem. The nice weather and previous days of profitable fishing had lured out a large number of dory boat fishermen. The designated boat trailer parking area north of drive down ramp was full to capacity. As the tide filled in, the waves increased dramatically. Miles offshore where the fishing took place, there was no indication of the growing swell.
Surfers go where the waves are, it is always that way. On that fateful day, it just so happened that the best waves were breaking directly in front of where the dory men wanted to beach their boats. It wasn’t that way when the boats had gone out in the early morning but the rising tide and growing surf had changed all that. Besides the fishermen and surfers, there were also many beachgoer’s taking advantage of the pleasantly mild holiday weekend weather. It was a very busy Sunday.
Most of the dory boats use a big outboard motor. They race in through the surf at full speed to run up the beach as far as their momentum will take them once they hit the dry sand. The waves travel at a much slower speed so often the boats will overtake the wave in front if it’s not too big. With a tall wave, the slope on the back is too much for the boat to climb over. This is extremely dangerous anyway because the front side of the wave is always much bigger than the back. Taking the drop in a flat bottom dory boat is not recommended and could very well end in a terrible wipeout. Unable to climb the uphill slope, the boat is stuck close behind the swell where there is a blind area of what’s ahead of the wave. With surfers in the water, the boats going at speed and the wave hiding each from the other, it is an accident waiting to happen. One boat came so close to a surfer that he felt the propeller brush his foot as he scrambled to escape. Luckily it was a near miss. About 10 minutes later, the scene would be repeated with another boat and other surfers.
Cole saw the boats running in but he was near a group of surfers and perhaps thought there was some safety in numbers. A set formed outside and the group paddled to get into position for it. The other surfers were older and more experienced. There were surfers on either side of Cole as they moved towards the outside. They all paddled up the face of the wave in front and came over the other side right into the path of a speeding boat. The boat split the two surfers but Cole was between them with no place to go. With only enough time to roll off his board, there was no way to avoid a collision. No one except Cole knows exactly what happened but perhaps it went something like this. Cole bounced along under the boat’s flat bottom until he ran headlong into the outboard leg and its spinning prop. The motor’s leg may have hit first, breaking several ribs, puncturing Cole’s lung. The prop struck his head, luckily only a glancing blow, lacerating his scalp. Next it hit his arm, first below the elbow, then right on the joint and finally it found purchase on his upper arm, rotating a full cycle. The propeller spun through the bicep, upper arm bone and triceps, severing it completely.
The two surfers on either side of Cole were bowled over by the boat wake. Shocked at the near miss, they looked at one another in disbelief at what had just occurred. Cole surfaced screaming in pain and the two nearest noticed the blood staining the water. Quickly they paddled towards him and saw the damage. The other nearby surfers also paddled to help.
Paul Snodgrass, a surfer and photographer had decided to take pictures that day. He had noticed the earlier near collision and witnessed the surfer come ashore to say something to the fishermen driving the boat. He began taking pictures of another dory racing towards shore, watched it go right through a pack of surfers, heard the yelling and knew something bad had happened. His next photos show the nearness of the boat wake to several of the surfers. Then there are these same surfers rushing to Cole’s aid as he surfaces directly in the still visible boat wake. Other surfers gather to help get Cole on a surfboard and get him to shore. Most damning is Paul’s picture of the now stopped dory boat, its two-crew members facing aft, arms outstretched, their body language indicating…well it doesn’t appear to be shock or horror over what they had just done.
The surfers managed to get Cole to shore. Someone used a surf leash as a tourniquet to stem the bleeding. An Oregon State trooper checking fishing licenses saw the group and drove over to them. He asked for help from the crowd and another surfer who happened to be an ER doctor stepped forward. Frank Libby attended to Cole while the trooper radioed for an ambulance from Tillamook. One of the surfers who had been next to Cole and had the speeding boat brush by him was thinking about asking the dory men about replacing his damaged surfboard when he noticed something floating next to him in the water. It was Cole’s severed arm still in the sleeve of the wetsuit. He grabbed it and took it in to the crowd on the beach. The ER doctor knew what to do. The arm was wrapped in sterile gauze, placed into a plastic bag and put on ice. Cole was placed on a backboard, in a neck brace. The doctor asked him about his pain and injuries, Cole replied, “Thank God I’m alive.”
Chelsea and Keenan were on the beach when they brought Cole ashore. Keenan helped with the surf leash tourniquet and told Chelsea to go get Charlie in the RV Park. At first she thought Cole had been attacked by a shark. When Charlie got down to parking lot, the doctor was working on him and said Cole was alive, alert and stabilized. Cole was taken to Tillamook County General Hospital where a Life Flight helicopter met him. He was transferred immediately to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital in Portland. Steven Madey, a trauma and orthopedic surgeon, rushed him into surgery. Within three hours of the accident, Dr. Madey had reattached Cole’s arm and had blood flowing through it again.
Cole has a long recovery ahead of him and it’s hard to say how it will all turn out. So far everything has gone well. There is a Cole Ortega Recovery Fund set up at the Bank of the Cascades in Bend, OR. It was a terrifying accident that hopefully will never be repeated. In the meantime, we all wish Cole a speedy recovery and look forward to him getting his life back as soon as possible. We love you Cole.