Coast Guard questioned in man's death

I-Team investigation
January 11, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
A Marin County man died after he fell into the waters off Belvedere at the height of the storm one week ago today. The I-Team has learned the Coast Guard refused to send its boats to help rescue him.

Todd Estrella was in the frigid water for almost an hour before a local rescue team could reach him -- the Coast Guard didn't help. This sad chain of events began with a problem that's been plaguing the area for years -- run-down boats anchored just off shore that break loose in storms.

An odd collection of boats sits just off Sausalito. They're called "anchor-outs." Some people who would otherwise be homeless live here, others have jobs along the waterfront. The problem is, maintenance on these boats is often poor.

Most let their raw sewage flow into the bay. When a big storm hits, several break loose and wind up across Richardson Bay, littering the shoreline and even slamming into homes on Belvedere.

"This bay, pristine piece of water out here has been a dumping ground for so long," says Jim Robertson, a Belvedere resident.

Jim Robertson's house has been hit with six stray boats in six years. And in the storm last Friday, one of the biggest anchor-outs got loose -- a retired tugboat -- home to a deckhand and his girlfriend.

Ina Tabibian watched the tug, 100 feet long and 300 tons, bearing down on her house. She called the Sausalito Coast Guard station.

"And they said, 'we have it under control, and it's our information that it's no longer adrift,' and I said, 'yes, it is adrift,'" says Ina Tabibian, a Belvedere resident.

The neighbors along West Shore Road know the Coast Guard sometimes can't help; so the Richardson Bay Regional Authority has a contract with Dave's Diving Service to stop the runaway anchor-outs.

Last Friday morning, 37-year-old Todd Estrella answered the call.

"He was one of these guys you can't really restrain, he's like bigger than life, he'd want to get out there no matter what you said, stop or do anything, he'd want to get out there and check it out and see if he could help somebody or just for the flat out adventure of it," says Dave Gissendaner of Dave's Diving Service.

Todd and his dive partner, Wolf Gurley, took off in their workboat.

The conditions were very rough with 60-mile an hour winds, six to eight-foot waves and blinding rain. They reach the tugboat, get it anchored just off Belvedere, and turn to see their workboat drifting away.

Todd Estrella acts fast.

"So he's like, 'okay, I got it.' He takes his foul weather jacket off, hands it to me, hands me his billfold and his cell phone, he does a perfect dive off the stern of the tug into the water," says Gurley.

Estrella quickly realizes the water is too cold. He climbs back aboard the tug, then takes off in the tugboat's skiff. It's too small for the conditions. Wolf Gurley watches it capsize.

"It spun really quick, a perfect spin, and then she just sank. And the only thing sticking out of the water was the bow of the skiff. The next thing he did was he crawled up on top of the bow of the skiff and kind of huddled down," says Gurley.

Gurley used Todd's cell phone to call 911, but he was on hold for more than 10 minutes.

911 Call:

Gurley: "I don't know if I need the sheriff or the Coast Guard. I've lost somebody overboard."

Dispatcher: "Where?"

Neighbors on Belvedere were watching the tragedy unfold from shore. Several called the Coast Guard's Motor Lifeboat Station Golden Gate directly, but they all got the same answer. Chief Kevin Morgan was in charge that day.

"We couldn't get in there because the depth of water was too shallow, it was actually even too shallow for our smaller boats," says U.S. Coast Guard Chief Kevin Morgan.

Morgan claims there was only a foot or less of water at the scene, but other authorities disagree. Josh McHugh is the firefighter who eventually rescued Todd Estrella using a jet ski.

Josh McHugh, Southern Marin Firefighter: "It was a six-foot tide, extreme amount of storm surge and then all the runoff creates more water in that part of the bay.

ABC7's Dan Noyes: "So, it's probably what, six or eight feet at least?"

Josh McHugh: "Yes, I would imagine that's about right on the depth."

And the harbor master says if it was deep enough for the tugboat with its hull that reaches 14 feet to drift, then it was deep enough for the Coast Guard. "There was a seven-foot, almost eight-foot tide running right then because of the storm surge, so there was at least water to go out and look, I would have thought," says Bill Price, the Richardson Bay harbor master.

"Where he was, where he was located, the best asset at the time was by Tiburon fire, by their Shoreside rescue team," says Chief Morgan.

But, there was a problem. The local swift water rescue team was on standby in Kentfield. It took them 20 minutes to arrive on scene, five more to unload their jet skis, another 15 to find Todd Estrella.

"As a rescue personnel, and not have the tools at our disposal promptly to do the rescue, it's very frustrating, very difficult for us to watch. And we knew that the victim was in severe distress," says Tiburon Fire Department Chief Ed Lynch.

By that point, about an hour after he fell in, Todd Estrella had severe hypothermia. He suffered a heart attack in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and died over the weekend. "There were a few bad calls, decisions, on our part, but at the same token, I don't understand how they can refuse to do their job. That's there job," says Gurley

Before, during and after Todd Estrella's struggle, as their own video shows, the Coast Guard was dealing with the anchor-outs in Richardson Bay, using the best rescue boats money can buy.

"Those boats go 50 miles an hour or better. I mean they could be on scene in a heartbeat. I know they were busy, but I don't think anybody was in the water, you know what I mean? This is like life or death, and these guys should have gone out there and taken care of this," says Gissendaner. Dan Noyes: "Should the Coast Guard have done more on the water to save Todd Estrella?"

Chief Morgan: "I don't think there was anything more that we could have done given the conditions and the weather that day."

The Coast Guard did send a helicopter to the rescue, but it arrived at 10:20, just as the firefighters were pulling Todd Estrella out of the water. By the way, federal OSHA is investigating whether there are problems at Dave's Diving Service that led to this tragedy -- perhaps a lack of training or equipment.

From speaking with his family and friends, it's clear Todd Estrella led a fascinating life. Read more about that side of the story in my I-Team blog here.