OXNARD — A 15-year-old Oxnard boy who was learning to swim was presumed drowned Friday in heavy surf and dangerous rip currents at unguarded and often-dangerous Oxnard State Beach.
The boy had been swimming with two friends for more than an hour just off the coast of the Mandalay Beach Resort when strong winds and heavy swells from the south and the north converged on the beach.
By 12:20 p.m., the boys were seen clinging to each other as they fought to stay afloat and get on to the beach.
Oscar Tellez, 20, and his brother Luis, 16, made it to shore. Alex Cabrera did not.
"I just saw his head go down and he never came back up," said a visibly distraught Susan Gelt, a vacationer from Santa Clarita, who watched the tragedy unfold.
Gelt said the beach was almost deserted at the time, and when she and a friend heard the initial screams for help, they were unsure if the trio was playing or in danger.
With the closest lifeguards a mile down the coast, at county-owned Hollywood Beach, Bob Schumacher, of Chandler, Ariz., ran down the beach and grabbed his 16-year-old son, Robbie, who paddled out to help on a boogie-board.
He managed to help Luis Tellez pull his older brother to shore.
"They could barely even walk," Robbie Schumacher said.
After getting the call at 12:26 p.m., Oxnard firefighters, the U.S. Coast Guard and Channel Islands Harbor Patrol scoured the coastline in boats and three helicopters, as county lifeguards from Hollywood Beach drove up and swam the waters in search of the boy's body.
"It's so sad," Bob Schumacher said. "It was really horrible."
Officials said they would continue to search the waters and beaches until Cabrera's body is found.
"We may not find him," said Oxnard fire engineer Richard Hodge, who is in charge of the department's water and air operations. "We've had cases out here where people have drowned and [we] never found them. There are such strong currents coming from the north and south right now."
As rescue officials dropped buoys in the water to track the wild currents and trace where Cabrera's body might have traveled, Fire Department chaplains counseled the Tellez boys and two other friends who came to the beach with them Friday morning.
"He came to the beach a lot, but he was only learning to swim," said Juan Flores, 16, of Oxnard, who stared blankly at the pounding waves in hopes of finding his friend.
Oxnard Fire Capt. Kevin Schroepfer said the beach is notorious for its strong and unpredictable rip currents. However, the beach, maintained by the city of Oxnard, has no lifeguards.
"This beach is one of the roughest ones around," Schroepfer said.
Parker Bartlett of Moorpark had been bodysurfing with his 12-year-old son in the choppy waves at about noon. But conditions got poorer by the minute.
"Within minutes we were down the beach," he said. "I just decided to get out."
In 1985, the city of Oxnard paid for the development of Oxnard State Beach on 50 acres of state-owned land as a park for city residents, said city planner Matthew Winegar. But it was not until about three years ago that the state turned over the entire park and beachfront to the city, he said.
"We've never had lifeguards, but we've never had the population that we have now, either," Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said. "It's certainly something we should consider."
So strong were the currents on Friday that by the time the Tellez brothers reached shore, they were more than 500 yards down the beach from where they were first seen struggling and screaming for help, rescue officials said.
The three swimmers grabbed on to each other as strong rip currents pulled them out to sea and down the beach. But when a large wave crashed over them, they became separated, Schroepfer said.
Oxnard Fire Department Chaplain Dan Green said Cabrera had managed to again latch on to Oscar Tellez, the oldest and strongest of the three. But fearing for his own life, Tellez had to push the younger boy away.
"They're just so shook up right now," Green said. "They're remorseful. They're feeling that they should have tried a little harder, that they should have stayed out there. The best thing to tell them is they did the best job they possibly could."
About 1 1/2 hours after the presumed drowning, Cabrera's distraught mother arrived at the beach, sobbing as she hugged the Tellez boys and listened to the chaplains. Later, she stood on the beach in hopes that her son would be found.
As the hours ticked away, rescue officials held out little hope that the boy would be found alive.
"It's not unheard of to have somebody drown and find their body several days later," Schroepfer said. "It's conceivable that the victim's body could wash up in any location."
Times staff writer Mack Reed contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Escaping a Rip Current Rip currents are commonly created when a large amount of water is funneled by beach topography into narrow channels, then out to sea. A common mistake made by swimmers in a rip current is trying to swim straight to shore.
The proper way to escape:
* Allow the current to move you seaward; don't try to swim against the current, as this can drain your strength.
* Once the current weakens, normally less than 100 yards from shore, swim parallel to the beach until the rip current disappears.
* Swim toward the shore, riding incoming waves if possible.