By Ben Bodart, Special to the Independent
As is his habit, Laguna Beach resident and surfer Ian McErlane, 37, was out walking his two dogs in Heisler Park recently when red-flag surf conditions transformed the routine into life-saving heroism.
McErlane’s attention was drawn to people on Picnic Beach, who were watching the waves Saturday, March 31, where a scuba diving class was surprised by large surf.
After watching for a moment, he joined them on the beach. “I literally walked down and did not run because it did not seem really serious. It is when I arrived on the beach and when I looked closer that I heard that the woman was screaming for help and fighting for her life. I could sense the panic in her,” he said.
Without any lifeguard training, McErlane waded into the waves fully clothed, shoes included. “I followed my instinct. I did not think that she was going to die, but I think she did.” One of his dogs followed, too, swimming around McErlane and a struggling scuba diver.
Thanks to two decades surfing local breaks such as Rockpile and Crystal Cove State Park and San Clemente’s Strands and Trestles, McErlane didn’t hesitate.
McErlane grabbed the woman by her vest and tried to urge her to relax before starting to swim to the beach: “She had all her gear on, so she was pretty heavy. The water in the impact zone was calm, but shore breaks were coming in, so it was hard to make progress to the beach,” McErlane said.
Three other divers getting pounded by six to eight foot swells were pulled out by lifeguards Matt Grace and Ryan Winfield. “The group is lucky to be alive,” said lifeguard Capt. Tom Trager, who administered oxygen to the woman McErlane pulled out. “You don’t want to attempt to dive in those conditions.”
When he reached the beach, McErlane saw others coming to assist. He rolled the woman over and asked someone to call 911. When he realized she would recover, he left the beach. Lifeguards declined to identify the victim.
“I was cold. I thought it was time to take care of myself. So I walked home to have a hot shower, but while I was walking I stopped for a moment. I was not shocked, but it was a huge fix of emotion. It is difficult to put words on what I felt. It is similar to fear, but with good emotions in it. I feel privileged that I did that,” he explained.
Now, McErlane, who is out of work, feels blessed by a chance encounter to save a person’s life. “I want to thank my dad, Roger, and my mum, Shannon, for teaching me to do the right thing,” said McErlane, a native of Laguna who studied in Colorado and worked as a teacher in San Jose.
McErlane understands why people would call him a hero. “But I am not,” he said. “I just followed my instinct.”
Ben Bodart is the Indy’s intern from Belgium.