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October 10, 2011

Double-Crossing Death on the Pacific

An account of the sinking of a ship named the A.C.E. off the Southern California coast...

Something’s Out There
Ed Westberg’s blood pressure medicine made it difficult for him to sleep through the night. He’d wake up before dawn needing to urinate.

True to the pattern, Westberg felt the urge to go to the bathroom about 3 a.m. Saturday morning.

He could hear the Santa Ana winds, which had kicked up earlier in the evening, whistling around his home.

Groggy, he pulled himself out of bed and walked to the bathroom. As he looked through the sliding glass door of his second-story bedroom, a red spark caught his eye.

Westberg’s large single-family San Clemente home is a little north of the famed Trestles surfing spots. Set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, he can see Cotton’s Point, another surf spot known for its long left walls, Seal Rock straight ahead and the entrance to the Dana Point Harbor to the north. 

“I was still half asleep,” says Westberg. “I was thinking ‘Was that a flair I saw out there?’”

He woke up his wife Jan and told her what he had seen and that he was going to call 911.

The operator connected him to Tina Maguire, the Orange County Sheriff’s dispatcher.

He described what he saw to Maguire and told her to call back, if they needed more help. Westberg stayed awake and went downstairs to get a better look from his deck.

About five minutes later, he saw a red light—a very dim one in the same area as the flare.  He estimated it to be less than two miles off shore in the area between Cotton’s Point and Seal Rock.  

An experienced sailor, he knew there was someone out there and they were most likely sending a distress signal.

“We watched the fire boat leave the harbor and move down the coast,” the now- retired dentist said. “With its blue light on, it was easy to spot.”  

By the time the patrol boat reached the San Clemente pier, Westberg’s phone started ringing.

Maguire told him that deputies Russ Endsley and Diana Honicker were having trouble seeing anything because of the sea conditions. “I told her they hadn’t come south far enough,” Westberg said.

As the boat headed down the coast, Maguire said they still couldn’t see anything.

Westberg asked Maguire to connect him directly to Honicker. 

“You need to come further south and then away from shore,” Westberg told the deputy.

Rescue
The radio inside the Dana Point Marine Substation squawked at 3:09 a.m.:

“RED FLARE SEEN FIVE MINUTES AGO THREE MILES OFF SHORE JUST SOUTH OF SEAL ROCK…”

When the two harbor patrol deputies heard the call, they were skeptical.  Nobody should have been out there, not in those conditions. 

They had received plenty of calls like it before; people see something, but the sightings turn out to be fireworks, the lights from a squid boat or a figment of their imagination.

But Honicker and Endsley had no time to debate the validity of the call. They grabbed their floatation coats, sprinted out the side door of the small facility and untied their 32-foot Seaway fireboat, both engines already warmed up. 

At the mouth of the harbor, Honicker, who was at the wheel, told Endsley: “You better put your lifejacket on.”

In the 20 years the two had patrolled Orange County waterways, they’d experienced rough conditions and difficult rescues, but this one was going to be rougher than most.

“When we were headed out, the swells were clearing the canopy, and I was completely drenched—the water was hitting me in the face consistently,” Honicker said. 

As they headed down the coast, eight-foot waves dropped out from underneath them, sending the boat on a wild ride of peaks and valleys.

The radar was useless.

The Newport Beach dispatcher Tina Maguire radioed with an update:

“ADVISING FLARE WAS SEEN A LITTLE FURTHER DOWN COAST AND ABOUT THREE MILES OFFSHORE…HE SEES LIGHTS FROM A BOAT OUT THERE BUT IT’S HARD TO TELL DISTANCE IN THE DARK…”

The dispatcher connected the informant directly to Honicker.  

She changed her heading, but still couldn’t see anything. Westberg told her to come further south and then proceed away from shore.

“I saw a little flash, a tiny little flash—something caught my eye. So I turned and headed away from shore.  But he was saying,  ‘No, no, no you’re going in the wrong direction.’ I told Endsley, ‘Listen there’s nobody out here except for us and whoever’s in trouble. I saw something, and that’s where I’m headed.’”

Honicker took a new compass heading.

What she saw next surprised both of them.  They shined the boat’s search lights off the port side and at first Honicker thought it was some kind of military hover craft, which wasn’t too far out of the realm of possibility, considering the Camp Pendleton Marine base was only a few miles south. 

But as they got closer, she realized it was a huge engine prop sticking out of the water.

“And there was a small boat that was right on top of the prop,” Honicker remembers.  “The skiff was angled with its stern popping up as the A.C.E. was dragging it down. I saw how big the prop was and I yelled, ‘What kind of boat is it?’  And one of the crewmembers yelled back that it was the A.C.E.  bait boat.”

Knowing bait boats carried large nets and rigging that could get tangled up in the engines, she turned the vessel sharply to the right, cut the portside engine, shifted it into reverse and backed the boat so its swim step was a foot from the skiff.   

While Honicker tried to maintain their position, Endsley assisted each crewmember onto the fireboat.

Because of Souder’s weight and fatigued condition, it took every ounce of strength Shanahan, Rector and Machado had to help him on to the swim step. When Endsley grabbed him, all of Souder’s weight shifted as the two boats were coming down on the crest of a swell and Endsley felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. With all of Souder’s weight now on Endsley, he pulled Souder on the boat, but in the process tore his rotator cuff.    

With Souder on board, both Shanahan and Rector jumped from the skiff onto the rescue boat.

Machado followed.  By all accounts, it took less than five minutes to get the crew off the skiff; Honicker shifted into drive and they were gone.  

Endsley helped the four inside the small cabin, gave them blankets and cranked up the heat. According to the deputies, the crew was hypothermic and in various stages of shock. The fact that none of them were seriously injured or had been killed was a miracle.

As they pulled away, Machado remembers seeing Honicker looking back to where they were seconds earlier and her face turned white; the skiff had disappeared.

The mood inside the small cabin was a mixture of nervous laughter and emotional release. As the fireboat bounced hard off the swells, Shanahan looked at Rector and said, “Aren’t you glad Hal put the flare pistol in the skiff?”

According to the dispatch record, the search and rescue was completed in less than one hour thanks in large part to Ed Westberg’s involvement.

Back inside the Sheriff’s facility, the crew showered and changed into dry clothes. They declined medical treatment.

“Machado was in tears,” Honicker remembers. “He was hugging me—extremely grateful. I think they all realized just how close they came to dying out there.”