Reporting from Vandenberg Air Force Base — Six-foot waves were breaking when Lucas Ransom and his longtime buddy Matthew Garcia arrived at Surf Beach west of Lompoc on Friday morning.
No wind, glassy conditions — they agreed it was going to be a great session for Garcia on his surfboard and Lucas on his beat-up red bodyboard.
Before they plunged into the chilly waters, Ransom pulled out his cellphone.
"You wouldn't believe these waves, Mom. I can't wait to get to them," he told Candace Ransom, who said have fun, call afterward.
That was the last she heard from the 19-year-old son she described as a fearless athlete with "the sweetest heart."
They'd been in the waves about 45 minutes when a shark appeared out of nowhere and pulled Ransom under, Garcia said. There was no warning. The shark appeared to be about 18 to 20 feet long. Ransom looked at his friend a couple of feet away and said "Help me, dude," before getting lost in the waves, Garcia said.
"It was very stealth," he said. "You would have never known there was a shark in the water. It was all really quick."
The water turned red, he said: "Imagine a river of blood. That's what the wave looked like for a minute."
Ransom's left leg was ripped off at the pelvis, his parents said. Garcia tried to give him chest compressions as he pulled him to shore. But he was bleeding profusely and died before they got there.
Witnesses told authorities that the young men were about 100 yards offshore when the attack occurred. Fire personnel from Vandenberg Air Force Base pronounced Ransom dead at the scene. Authorities quickly closed Surf Beach and two other beaches nearby for at least 72 hours. Surf Beach is on Vandenberg's 42 miles of coastline, but the public has access to it from California Highway 246.
Federal and state wildlife officials are working to identify the type of shark that attacked Ransom. A shark expert said Friday that, based on its behavior and Ransom's injury, it most likely was a great white.
"It takes a shark of massive size and jaw to inflict that kind of injury," said Andrew Nosal of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
Great whites seek prey at the water's surface and attack with enormous ferocity from underneath, Nosal said, adding that the silhouette of a surfer on a bodyboard looks a lot like a sea lion on the surface. After they bite, it's too late. "It may be mistaken identity," he said.
About 75% of fatal shark attacks are caused by great whites. Even so, attacks are exceedingly rare, Nosal said. The last fatality in California was in 2008, when a 17-foot shark killed a retired veterinarian who was swimming off Solana Beach.
Lifeguards said that shark may have been a great white. The victim, a triathlete who regularly swam off the San Diego County beach, was wearing a wetsuit and may have been mistaken for a seal, they said.
Fellow swimmers who witnessed the 2008 attack said there was an extraordinary boil in the water before the shark struck, biting 66-year-old Dave Martin in the legs. He, too, suffered massive bleeding and was dead before he was pulled to shore.
Clay Garland, the head ranger at Jalama Beach, about an hour south of Friday's attack site, said surfers have told him that they frequently spot sharks at Surf Beach. He said such sightings are rare at Jalama. "In the 12 years I've been here, we've only had two sightings," he said.
There have been at least 11 other fatal shark attacks along California's coast since 1950.
Ransom and Garcia were wearing wetsuits, said Matthew Ransom, Lucas' father. The two swam competitively at Perris High School, close to the small rural town of Romoland in Riverside County, where Ransom grew up.
Matthew Ransom said his son always loved the water and became a lifeguard at 16. A few months after he completed his training, he helped resuscitate a boy who had been pulled unconscious from a community pool in Murrieta, where Ransom was a summer lifeguard.
The city honored Ransom and two other lifeguards for their efforts, his father said.
"He did CPR and got the little boy to choke up the water," Matthew Ransom said. "I was really proud of him."
Lucas was thrilled to be accepted at UC Santa Barbara — his "dream school" because it was so close to great surfing breaks on the coast, Candace Ransom said. He was a junior majoring in chemical engineering and hoped to attend pharmacy school after graduation, his mother said.
Garcia, 20, who was Ransom's college roommate, is studying computer science. The pair surfed whenever they had a free moment, Garcia said. They also played together on the water polo team.
Garcia said his friend had a sunny, goofy personality, dressing in outrageous costumes and body paint each year for the wild Isla Vista Halloween parties.
"He was a great guy and great friend," he said.
Matthew Ransom said the family takes consolation in the fact that Lucas died doing something he loved. "He was in his element," his father said. "They had a big swell up there. He went out smiling."
At Surf Beach on Friday, gray skies and rolling sand dunes greeted visitors, as did the sign solemnly posted by two Vandenberg Airmen in black berets.
"Warning. Recent shark attack. Beach closed."
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.