Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson was manning a rescue boat Sunday evening when he got a call that a swimmer was struggling to get back to shore near 16th Street.
The 6- to 8-foot swell, slightly larger than waves traditionally seen in that area of the beach, had taken the swimmer, a man, by surprise.
The National Weather Service had warned of dangerous rip currents and high surf along the beach that day, stemming from a swell originating in the Southern Hemisphere. For the majority of the day, the coast was pummeled with swells that reached up to 12 feet.
Lifeguards had already made nearly 200 rescues by the time Carlson received what would be his last call as a member of the team.
The department makes about 4,000 rescues each year, said Newport Beach Chief Lifeguard Rob Williams.
Around 5 p.m. lifeguards hopped off their towers and braved the surf to help the fraught swimmer, but Carlson could get there faster.
Without hesitation, the 32-year-old dove off the boat and swam toward the man, successfully reaching him before any of the other lifeguards. Several bodyboarders also swam toward the man in an attempt to help.
Before they could begin to swim to safety, a large wave slammed the group underwater.
"As the bodyboarders came up, and the victim came up, he did not," Williams said.
Carlson disappeared in the surf as the group made their way back to the shore.
Seven boats, two helicopters and at least 30 people began searching for the lifeguard.
Dave Kiff, Newport Beach City Manager, arrived near the Newport pier about 45 minutes after the search began to offer support.
Kiff watched as lifeguards swam in a line perpendicular to the shore. About every 20 seconds, they'd "pop their heads up," and their leader would shout, "Dive!"
"All you'd see were fins — their fins would pop up and down they'd go," he said. "And it's just heartbreaking because by that point, you know the outcome is not good."
Lifeguards knew they were searching for a body — either of a friend or a man who shared their work.
Kiff, who said he followed along the beach, watched the line of searchers move north and west in the choppy surf, getting as far as the about 28th Street, when the sun started to set.
At sundown, three hours after the search began, Carlson's body was found near the Newport Pier.
Paramedics took Carlson to Hoag Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 8:15 p.m., according to the Orange County coroner's office.
Carlson's death marks the first time in the division's 100-year history that a lifeguard died in the line of duty.
The coroner will conduct an autopsy this week to determine the official cause of death.