PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Joanne Cornelius had just finished taking photos of the breathtaking waves and extreme high tide outside her home on the Oregon coast when a frantic woman pounded on her window and asked her to call 911.
Children had been washed out to sea by a wave, the woman said.
A family visiting from Portland had been storm-watching on the remote beach Saturday when a powerful wave caught them by surprise, sweeping the father, his 4-year-old son and his 7-year-old daughter into the surf.
A police officer pulled the girl from the waves, but she died at a hospital. The boy’s body has not been found, and the U.S. Coast Guard has stopped searching for him. The father, Jeremy Stiles, 47, survived and is recovering from hypothermia at a hospital.
It’s a scenario that plays out all too often on the Oregon coast, a rugged and treacherous shoreline that is made more dangerous each winter by powerful storms and “sneaker waves” — fast-moving surges of water that materialize within seconds to swallow a seemingly dry beach with knee-deep water. In most areas, the beach is flanked by steep bluffs or rocky outcroppings that make it hard to run away.
On Saturday, a fierce storm blowing ashore was made even more dangerous because of an unusually high tide, called a king tide, that added 11 feet to the tops of already huge waves, said Rick Hudson, emergency manager for the nearby town of Cannon Beach.
King tides occur when the sun and moon line up, and their combined gravity makes the tides much higher and much lower than normal. They can cause flooding and inundate normally dry beaches.
The waves at high tide Saturday were 15 feet and swells further out were up to 40 feet, with winds of about 25 mph, the Coast Guard said. Sea spray and foam covered the entire beach, authorities said.
Coastal towns rely on winter storm watchers for tourism and even advertise when the king tides will make the ocean more spectacular. Beachside hotels offer storm-watching packages to attract customers during the off-season.
But authorities also post warnings on social media and on the beaches about the dangers and advise people to watch from a safe distance.
“People come out here because they want to be weather-watching, but they don’t realize how dangerous the weather can be and how fast it can change,” Hudson said.