Teens killed by sneaker waves along Oregon coast as Pacific takes more lives

Dave Masko's picture

YACHATS, Ore. -- The noise stretched like a tight wire through the air as dozens teenagers yelled for help as two classmates were swept out to sea and drowned after a 10-foot-high-sneaker wave hit them while visiting the coast, said one Yachats local who witnessed the rescue attempts for Connor Ausland, 18, and Jack Harnsongkram, 17; at the same time, Oregon State Parks and Recreation report more than 60 deaths have occurred along this same stretch of coast over the past 10 years.

Moreover, the mighty Pacific Ocean claims, on average, about 100 people each year along West coast beaches that stretch from southern California up to the very top of Washington State. Officials say many die while “in the midst of playing on the beach or standing or hiking along coastal vantage points.”

Here in the coastal town of Yachats, deaths from the nearby Pacific Ocean occur because of drowning. “The danger we face is caused by rip currents that form something we call ‘sneaker waves,’ that move around the coastal cliffs and then collapse on bystanders in much the same way as what killed these teens on Saturday,” explained Yachats local Dennis Wygle who lives nearby at Bray’s Point.

According to police officials, the two Eugene high school seniors died instantly after the wave lifted them off the slippery rocks and took them out to sea. Oregon State Police said the incident happened around noon on Saturday near Smelt Sands State Park after a group of South Eugene High School students were attending a coastal retreat.

Oregon State Police Lieutenant Greg Hastings said both Ausland and Harnsongkram “were trying to get close to the ocean when the water quickly rose and swept them into the ocean.” Police said Ausland’s body was found later Saturday afternoon after his fellow classmates, Yachats locals, Coast Guard helicopters and a host of local and state police combed the area.

On Sunday morning, the search party found Harnsongkram’s body in the Pacific ocean near Yachats.
Shock and horror gripped much of the Oregon coast and nearby Eugene over the weekend as news of about the young teens death moved many to tears. During a local TV interview, a longtime friend of both Ausland and Harnsongkram noted “there’s no reason this should have happened. It’s just unfair.”

According to local TV reports, both teens were finalists for South Eugene High School's "Mr. Axeman" pageant, a group of 10 male students who are selected as representatives for the high school. Friends said Ausland was an “avid athlete with a passion for Ultimate Frisbee and basketball,” while Harnsongkram was noted as a skilled outdoor rock climber and for “his easy smile and natural leadership.”

Today marks a special mourning period at South Eugene High School. A public memorial is also planned, said school officials.

Oregon coast becoming more dangerous

From the Oregon UFO “watchers” group that regularly patrols the rugged coastal area around Yachats -- that includes Bray’s Point and Stonefield Beach -- to the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the region for whale watching, there’s one general rule: Be aware that these areas can be dangerous because of waves surges, slippery rocks and sharp surfaces.

While it’s no surprise for locals about this rise in the number of deaths on Oregon coast beaches due to sudden wave movements by the mighty Pacific Ocean, “it does catch our tourists unaware,” says Wygle who’s lived in Yachats for the past 15 years since retiring as a logger in nearby Eugene.

“You get folks coming to the beach thinking it’s laid back and easy. They let their guard down, not thinking about the ocean or being surprised by waves and rolling logs. It’s just terrible these kids lost their lives,” he said with a sense of chagrin.

At the same time, police note that Yachats and other areas along the central Oregon coast have become trouble spots because of more broad and easily accessible beaches that are free and open to the public. Thus, they note, that with more people visiting who are not used to the “moods” of the Pacific, they get caught.

In fact, there’s no hard statistics on just how many people are killed or injured along the Oregon coast.

Thus, it’s now common to see warning signs posted all along the public beaches.

Florence and the central Oregon coast are dubbed “the lungs of Eugene,” because it’s just an hour’s drive West along Highway 126.

In fact, the coast counts the Eugene region as its “main source of tourists,” says Florence tourism expert Sherri Garcia.

Moreover, Oregon’s Governor Ted Kulongoski said tourism is the one thing that’s growing in Oregon’s economy. “Today it is generating $7.7 billion. This is remarkable growth in Oregon’s tourism,” asserted Kulongoski during a recent tourism conference.

“Where else can you take a drive along 350 miles of Oregon coast that’s free and open to the public , and then get the added perk of watching both killer and gray whales swimming by. It’s one of the most alluring sites in all of nature, and it’s all free to those who visit here,” Garcia adds.

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