Preston Hoffman saw the man first, face down in the water 40 feet below.
His friends — girlfriend Marisa Fernandez and roommate Jake Schipper — heard the thud and splash, too, as the group strung up a hammock on a drizzly Saturday, March 5, at an outcropping that overlooks Wildcat Cove at Larrabee State Park.
“Everyone just kind of froze,” Hoffman said.
The cliff was too steep for Hoffman, 21, a newcomer to Bellingham, to hike standing up. So he shimmied down the rocks on his backside. Once he reached the shoreline, less than two minutes later, he estimated, he pulled the unconscious man to a partly submerged rock. He flipped him over, as gently as he could, to the recovery position, he said.
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Meanwhile Fernandez called 911. Schipper, 20, climbed down to help, too.
There were definitely a few moments when you didn’t know if he was going to pull through.
Preston Hoffman, rescuer
The man, who looked to be in his older 20s, had fallen off a sheer cliff on the opposite side of the outcropping. He had been sitting on a ledge with a young woman, who was an acquaintance, not a girlfriend, said Fernandez, 20. (She spoke with the woman but didn’t get her full name.)
The pair had been sitting to watch the sunset, Fernandez said, and when he stood up he must have slipped off the ledge. Fernandez saw him for a split-second as he was in the air. She did not see where he landed, at first.
He suffered a serious blow to the head. Blood was coming out of his ears and mouth, and he was quivering. Hoffman, a former lifeguard in high school in Colorado, opened the man’s jaw but he didn’t perform CPR, he said, because the man started breathing on his own.
For about an hour Hoffman and Schipper waited with the man on the cramped rock, bracing his head, neck, upper back and legs. Their own legs were thigh-deep in the water.
“There were definitely a few moments when you didn’t know if he was going to pull through,” Hoffman said.
They sky grew darker, and it was rainy. At times the man faded back to consciousness. After a half hour or so he tried to speak, but the words were unintelligible.
Firefighters from the South Whatcom Fire Authority coordinated a rescue. They reached the Cove Road boat launch, where they had been told to go, but found no one in distress. Then someone came running down the railroad tracks and pointed them about 2,000 feet to the south, said Battalion Chief Mitch Nolze.
In the past, first-responders have used that area to train for this exact scenario. So they knew it would take an arduous, complex high-angle ropes rescue to retrieve the patient by land.
The Bellingham Fire Department launched its fire boat, the Salish Star, and the U.S. Coast Guard sent small and medium response boats from Squalicum Harbor. A rescue helicopter based in Port Angeles was readied, too, but in the end it wasn’t needed.
Paramedics jumped aboard the smaller Coast Guard vessel, a 29-footer, that maneuvered into the shallows. Once they got close enough to the patient, he was strapped to a backboard, carried onto the boat, and rushed by sea to a waiting ambulance around 7:20 p.m.
Hoffman and firefighters clarified that the man was in no condition to “climb aboard,” as the Coast Guard told media earlier.
Local and federal authorities declined to release the patient’s name, citing health privacy law and agency policy. So there has been no official update on his condition.
Hoffman and his friends never learned the man’s name, either.