From left, Jonathan Oskins, Brian Cohee and Yong Hwan Kim. Cohee, 58, of Claremont died Thursday while surfing off West Newport. He was studying at the Claremont School of Theology to be a minister. (Courtesy JONATHAN OSKINS / July 20, 2012)

A theology graduate student likely died of a heart attack while surfing off Newport Beach, according to a friend.

Brian Cohee, 58, of Claremont died Thursday at Hoag Hospital after firefighters took him there in critical condition.

His friend, Min-Woo Shin, 33, said Friday that doctors at Hoag informed him that Cohee probably suffered a heart attack, but that an autopsy was still needed to confirm that.

Earlier that afternoon, Cohee had traveled down to West Newport near Highland Street and West Oceanfront with Shin. The two recently had finished their first year at the Claremont School of Theology.

They entered the water at Lifeguard Tower 71 about 5:30 p.m. for a second surf session, Shin said.

The strong currents caused Shin to drift, however, and he lost sight of Cohee.

"Then I saw his body floating on the water," he said. "He didn't have any leash on his surfboard, so the board was drifting away 50 feet from him. I called his name, and he didn't respond. I kept shouting his name."

Shin and a bystander then pulled Cohee's body to shore, and Shin said he ran to a lifeguard for help. Witnesses on the beach performed CPR until the responders came, Shin said.

Lifeguards, firefighters and paramedics arrived at the scene at 6:08 p.m., according to a Newport Beach Fire Department press release.

Cohee was divorced and has extended family in Florida, Shin said.

Cohee's friends held a memorial at the Claremont School of Theology campus Friday afternoon.

"Everybody gathered and testified that they each owe something to Brian," Shin said. "He was such a blessing to our community."

Cohee, who had been in real estate for many years, returned to school to become a minister, said Jonathan Oskins, 37, of Claremont, who lived next door to Cohee in the school's graduate housing.

Cohee was working on an idea for the Methodist church to help undergraduate students invest wisely and get scholarships so they could graduate without debt, Oskins said.

"He was really looking forward to his future," Shin said.

 

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