Thursday, March 30, 2023

Beloved Southern California Educator Perishes in Heavy Surf off the Mendocino Coast


45-year-old David Reyes Juarez, an educator from Rancho Cucamonga, visited Mendocino Big River Headlands State Park on Saturday, January 2, 2021. He and his family hiked along the headlands, and with what a local described as “vicious” waves below them. In a tragic turn of events, the Juarez family watched as their loved one fell into the heavy seas. After a multi-agency rescue attempt, Juarez was found but ultimately pronounced deceased. 

San Bernardino Union School District Communications Officer Maria Garcia said Juarez had been an educator with the school district for fifteen years. Garcia said Juarez was an elementary teacher at the beginning of his career, transitioned to administration serving as principal of an elementary school, and approximately one month before his death had become the district’s Assistant Director of Special Education.

David Reyes Juarez [Pictures provided by the San Bernardino Unified School District]

Garcia said, “I worked with David personally. He was vivacious. He loved being an educator. That was his life’s calling. He enjoyed nothing more than watching students learn.” 

Garcia described every encounter with Juarez as “positive and upbeat. Even if he had somewhere to go, he would stop and shake your hand.” She said David was “very fit. He loved his car and his motorcycle.”

Garcia recalled an anecdote about Jaurez that exemplified his character: “David was on recess duty at Hunt Elementary, which has an apartment complex along one side.” Garcia said Juarez noticed “a little girl on the third story begin climbing out her window.” Juarez’s instincts told him the little girl “was about to fall, so he ran over, and as she fell, David caught her in his arms.”

Garcia said SBUSD is experiencing a “monumental sense of loss” in the wake of Jaurez’s passing. The district is offering staff and students crisis counseling to cope. 

Garcia said the passing of her colleague and friend has brought a fundamental truth into sharp relief: “Life is so fragile. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. We need to cherish today.” 

Jill Cordes, a tourist visiting Mendocino Big River Headlands State Park on the day of the tragedy, hiked along the same bluffs as Juarez with her eight and eleven-year-old children. She noticed in the distance, “two teenagers running like the wind.” Seeing the two teens run, she initially thought, “Oh, how cool, even at that age, they still race each other.” 

The reality of the situation set in when the teens rushed up to Cordes and a nearby couple, desperately asking, “Where are we? A man fell into the ocean. We have to call 911.”

Cordes said a man nearby told the teens they were in the town of Mendocino at Portuguese Beach.” 

The gravity of the situation came into focus for Cordes when she noticed “a guy pulling out some nearby fencing, to perhaps lower down to the man who fell.” 

Cordes saw a woman looking down at the water, shouting, “No!” and what looked like two teenagers huddled around the woman screaming towards the sea. 

The situation brought Cordes’s children to tears. She said her daughter “wanted to go over there and see if we could help.” Cordes watched emergency personnel arrive, the deployment of jet skis into the heavy seas, and finally “needed to get my kids back to the house we were renting.” As they got in the car, Cordes said a private prayer, and her kids were “incredibly upset, as was I, but I was keeping calm for them.”

Rescuers on the coast look on as jet skis navigate the heavy surf

Haunted by the experience, Cordes woke up early while her husband and children slept “and went back to the spot to see exactly how it happened.” She noticed that where Juarez would have fallen, directly under the bluff, was not the churning surf, but an elevated rock shelf with tide pools. Having vacationed on the Mendocino Coast before, she remembered that she and her children had explored those tide pools two years ago. 

Cordes, days after witnessing the tragedy, said she is still searching for answers, haunted about what she saw, the calm swiftness of the teenager trying to help the man, and the inherent dangers of the sea.

A press release issued by the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department described the rescue attempt of Juarez. Members of the MVFD and the State Parks Lifeguards were dispatched to Mendocino Big River Headlands State Park at 3:43 p.m. afterJuarez, who had into the ocean.

When units arrived on the scene, personnel immediately began to collect the necessary information to formulate a rescue operation, and a hasty search was undertaken along the coastline “to spot a victim in the water.”

Just days after Juarez drowned in the waters off of the Mendocino Big River Headlands State Park, this video was taken in the approximate location where he supposedly fell in to demonstrate the extreme conditions of the waters.

While personnel tried to locate Juarez from the coastline, members of MVFD’s Water and Cliff rescue teams began to respond, with the Water Rescue team launching from the Big River boat launch.”

Fire Chief David Latoof said the ocean conditions were “extreme.”. He added, “Our folks showed tremendous skill navigating through the surf to make it to the scene in the expeditious manner that they did.”

Emergency personnel staged on Portuguese Beach during the attempted rescue of Juarez

Juarez was finally seen in the water 45 minutes after emergency responders began their search. With rescue personnel on two jets skis, a State Parks Lifeguard in the water, and over 20 personnel looking for him on land, Juarez was spotted floating in Portuguese Bay.

Juarez was brought to shore, and first responders attempted CPR for twenty minutes. Juarez was pronounced dead at the scene by a paramedic. Emergency personnel covered Juarez and carried him up the steep headlands where Mendocino County Sheriff deputies assumed custody.

MVFD Captain Sayre Statham said, “The real tragedy was the victim’s family watching as a loved one was lost to the ocean. We watched a horrified family get broken apart.”

The Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department provided the following safety tips for visitors to the coast to ensure their safety: 

5 Tips for Enjoying the Water Safely

    • This is especially true at the river mouth where the river and ocean meet. We have seen people of all ages struggle against tidal forces which can drag people from the protected river out to the ocean. This is even more pertinent to parents with children who are playing on inflatable devices. Look around rocks and see which direction the water is moving before entering. Keep in mind that this can change so keep reevaluating.
    • Enjoying the water with a friend is always a good idea. You can look out for one another and call for help if an emergency presents itself. 
    • The largest limiting factor for first responders is time. Although it will be a scary experience losing control, keeping one’s head above water gives first responders adequate time to respond if a rescue situation presents itself. Make your way out of the water if possible to prevent hypothermia.
    • Watch the water for an extended period of time before entering. If you have any doubts as to whether or not it is a safe day to enjoy time in the water then try again later. It’s better to change your plans for one day than potentially risking your life.
    • Everyone can improve their skills as a swimmer. Being a competent swimmer will help one remain calm when experiencing an unexpected situation in the water. 

5 Tips on Dry Land

    • Whether one is looking at a sea star, posing for a picture, or looking back at town the risk for sneaker waves is always a possibility. Have someone who can give a warning to retreat to higher land and know that even a small swell is no reason to let one’s guard down. 
    • If you witness a cliff/surf rescue, first get yourself to a safe location and then call 911. Don’t become an additional victim that will strain first responders and potentially place them at further risk. Take a deep breath, try to stay calm, and look for landmarks to give to the dispatcher. Keep your eyes on the victim at all times.
    • The Mendocino coastline features sandstone as a prominent rock-type. Overtime, rock surfaces can become less secure and footing that previously was reliable may change.
    • Although the rocky coast provides for prevalent tidepools that can’t be found on other coastlines, exploring these hotspots of wildlife is not for everyone. Slippery rocks covered in algae can lead to traumatic injuries and an unfortunate tumble into the water.
    • Struggling upon falling in the water will only lead to exhaustion and may not increase the chances of survival. Don’t fight the waves but rather work with the ocean to make your way to a safer location. Swimming parallel towards the shore (towards the breaking waves) and letting the waves move you towards protected rocks will give you an opportunity to get out of the water and regain your strength. Getting to higher ground, even if it isn’t on the main shore, will give time for first responders to come help.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFever
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at if you know a story that needs to be told.

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