A 27-year-old swimmer was killed after the bottom fin of a surfboard slashed an artery in his neck in a freak surfing accident in Newport Beach, police said Monday.
Javad Heidarali of Newport Beach was wading in the surf near 51st Street on Sunday when he was struck by a surfboard whose rider had fallen off, Newport Beach Police Lt. Jim Carson said.
"Never are injuries as serious as this one," said Newport Beach Lifeguard Lt. Ron Johnson, a 27-year veteran lifeguard. "It's very unfortunate. We've never had it happen here in Newport Beach."
Although Newport Beach lifeguards enforce a "black flag" system that bars surfers in areas of the ocean as a safety precaution for swimmers during peak summer months, the surfer was surfing in a legal area, at an authorized time, a lifeguard official said Monday.
Police, lifeguard officials and experienced surfers interviewed Monday described the accident as "extremely rare."
The most common water mishaps, they said, usually occur when surfers get hit by their own surfboards--partially a result of surfboard leashes that attach the board to a surfer's ankle. Earlier this month, a 22-year-old Long Beach man was found unconscious and still leashed to his drifting surfboard near the Huntington Beach Pier. He apparently died of a blow to the head from his own board.
On Sunday, lifeguards, together with paramedics, gave Heidarali first-aid, then immediately transported him to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach at 5:20 p.m.
Heiderali, who recently moved to Newport Beach from Santa Ana, was accompanied in the ambulance by his brother, Mehdi, who was on the beach when the accident occurred. The brothers, who are from Iran, were the only members of their family living in the United States.
Emergency room doctors administered open-heart massage but were unable to revive Heidarali, who was pronounced dead at 5:47 p.m., a hospital spokeswoman said.
Supervising Deputy Coroner Richard Slaughter said the impact perforated the right sub-clavian artery, causing the victim to bleed to death, according to the results of an autopsy performed Monday. The cause of death was listed as accidental.
Johnson confirmed that the surfer in question was surfing legally at the time.
"Generally speaking, we usually put the (black) flags out about 11:30 a.m. until 4 or 4:30 p.m., depending on the crowd size. The flag was down when the accident occurred Sunday," Johnson said.
According to police, several surfers were trying to paddle out from shore at the time Heidarali was struck.
As a wave came in, all the surfers but one ducked under it, and the lone surfer turned around to catch the wave.
When he fell off, the wipe-out sent his surfboard flying in the air and toward Heidarali, police said.
Sunday's accident renewed concern among veteran surfers about being in the same waters with swimmers and inexperienced surfers. Some said separate surfing and swimming areas are needed.
Gary Edgar, a 23-year-old Newport Beach professional surfer, said he doesn't think about injuring himself and is "more worried" about the dangers in the ocean posed by other, less-experienced surfers.
"I'm more worried about paddling out through the surf and getting hit by another surfer than I am about causing an injury to myself. The problem is that people have different levels of experience; that's what makes the sport difficult. It's never the size of the wave," Edgar said.
T.K. Brimer, owner of the Frog House surf shop in Newport Beach, said the city should have surfing-only areas and swimming-only areas to avoid congestion and decrease surf mishaps.
"They can't co-habitat," Brimer said. "The same law that forces surfers from the water in Newport Beach at a specific time only dumps them in the closest popular surfing area near the Santa Ana River Jetty.
"There should be all-day surfing areas without swimmers allowed and all-day swimming areas without surfers allowed."
The most popular surfboards today are thrusters, or tri-fin boards with fiberglass fins or "skegs"--each seven to eight inches long--jutting from beneath the board. They serve as rudders but can also be dangerous because the trailing edge is very sharp. The leashes are meant only for quick retrieval of boards, not for safety.
Surfers have little control of their boards once they wipe out, Johnson said: "If you get wiped out on a wave and you lose your board, you can't control it. If it hits someone, it's an accident. This was a very unfortunate accident."
Earlier this month, Warren Webster, 22, of Long Beach, was found unconscious and lashed to his surfboard off Huntington Beach. Officials said a one-inch gash on Webster's left temple was believed to have been inflicted by the man's surfboard, causing a cerebral hemorrhage.
The last confirmed surfing death was that of Gregory Starr, 17, of San Clemente, who died of a head injury in 1976 when he was hit by a surfboard at San Clemente State Beach.
Woody Schultz, 24, of Newport Beach, who was known as an excellent surfer, disappeared during an afternoon of surfing in September, 1980. His body was never found, giving rise to speculation that Schultz may still be alive.
Word of Sunday's freak accident spread quickly among Newport Beach surfers Monday, and many found it troubling.
Charles Hill, an eight-year veteran surfer, said he doesn't worry much about the nicks and cuts he gets when he wipes out. And usually, he doesn't pay close attention to the surfboard's location. As a precaution, he said he will sometimes cover his head with his hands and arms during bad wipeouts to prevent or at least minimize any injury from his bottom fins.
But when he heard about Heidarali's death from other surfers on Monday, Hill said: "It gave me a weird feeling inside. I was devastated."
Times staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this story.