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Cliffs are alluring and deadly

Point Fermin, site of a USC kicker's death, has a history linked to both beauty and tragedy.

January 09, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

For as long as San Pedrans can remember, the stark beauty of the Point Fermin cliffs has drawn photographers, model plane enthusiasts and wedding planners.

But old-timers know that the steep, rock-strewn bluffs -- featured in a scene in the movie "Chinatown" -- have a haunting history as well.

In the last two decades, a number of people have fallen to their deaths there in tragic accidents and suicides, their bodies discovered far below on jagged rocks at the ocean's edge.

Some who plummeted off the cliffs have survived their falls. Some were victims of gang violence; other cases remain shrouded in mystery.

Locals mention the allure of the cliffs when they are buffeted by fierce winds. Some youths, they say, play a game of balancing themselves at the top of the bluffs, counting on the winds pushing against their bodies to stop them from falling.

The death of USC kicker Mario Danelo, 21, whose body was found Saturday at the bottom of a San Pedro cliff, has brought renewed attention to the beauty and sad history of the area.

"It's as dangerous as it is hypnotically beautiful," said San Pedro restaurateur John Papadakis. "There's no telling what goes on there. People lose their equilibrium."

On Monday, some residents of this close-knit harbor community lingered at an impromptu memorial for Danelo that has sprung up against the concrete balustrade at the cliffs' edge.

"I'm trying to figure it out -- how he could have fallen," said Richard Korgan, 59, who slowly rode his bike along the sidewalk flanking the balustrade.

Still, Korgan, a San Pedro native and longshoreman, understands the lure of the cliffs. As a boy, he and his friends would venture out past the fence to the cliff's edge -- "to see what's down there. Just curiosity. But for the grace of God, it could have been me."

Despite its rugged Monterey-style bluffs and 1874 lighthouse, Point Fermin Park is not a major regional tourist attraction. Like San Pedro itself, it feels like a distant outpost of Los Angeles, 25 miles south of downtown.

But its vistas are known the world over. An important turning point in the 1974 film "Chinatown" was filmed there. The lead character, Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, follows the character Hollis Mulwray to the point. Mulwray watches as fresh water is dumped into the Pacific, despite a major drought.

The backdrop of cliffs and surf, with pelicans soaring overhead, has made this a popular location for weddings, reunions and funerals.

The winds, too, are charismatic.

The cove below can funnel winds from the south and southwest, sending them crashing into the cliffs and creating an updraft that over the decades has drawn hang gliders and sail-plane hobbyists.

The winds have earned the Point Fermin area the name "Hurricane Gulch," said Cabrillo Beach lifeguard Stephan Sleeis. When the winds are strong, the model planes soar above the park, making a screaming noise as they go, he said.

In the past, hang gliders were seen hovering above the cliffs' rim, but the less adroit drifted toward the rocks below.

"Then, if they got an updraft, it would take them and throw them back against the cliff," said Dusty Crane, public affairs officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors.

In 1974, a Huntington Beach man died while gliding at Point Fermin. Hang gliding eventually was banned in the area, Crane said.

Fences and balustrades separate most of the park from the edge of the cliffs. To the east of the lighthouse, however, a narrow dirt path runs between a tall metal fence and a concrete wall, leading to the top of a gulch that cuts through the bluff to the water.

Sneaker prints follow the path downhill.

"When it gets wet, the clay gets slippery. It's a dangerous area," Crane said.

San Pedro attorney Carmen Trutanich can remember edging along the cliff's rim as a boy, and later lunching regularly with an attorney friend on an outcropping 15 feet below the edge.

When he was married, his wedding photos were taken there, and one photo shows his wife's veil blowing in a strong wind.

Some come here to walk and think, Trutanich said.

"It's that kind of place, a sacred place," he said.

Some have chosen to die here. Two teenage girls were found on the rocks below in 1996 after apparently jumping off the cliff, their wrists bound together with string. In 1989, a man and woman apparently jumped to their deaths.

As residents gathered at the cliff Monday, they shared their stories and mourned the dead.

One young woman in a USC sweat shirt walked across the grass toward the cliff with a bundle of balloons in cardinal and gold, USC's colors.

She knelt to tie them to the balustrade amid the candles and flowers, near a USC placard reading "Fight On."

The balloons broke free and went sailing over the edge in the breeze, a bundle of color against the silver of the sea.

The woman, Stephanie Moreno, 20, of Rancho Palos Verdes, said she did not know Danelo, but as a USC fan, she wanted to honor him. She did not mind that the balloons blew away, she said.

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