Sunday, May 20, 2007


By Diana L. Chapman

Razor-wire fences fail abysmally in capturing public support.
Citations for crisscrossing the cliffs of Point Fermin Park doom local residents’ freedom because of other people’s actions – even if visiting residents remain far back from the cliff walls.
The newly posted signs detailing the dangers haven’t stopped anyone. It just seems that nothing short of building another Berlin Wall along the jutting, bony cliffs off Paseo del Mar stands a chance of keeping people out of the spectacular area spliced by expansive ocean views that draws people like bees to sweet nectar.
The truth is, these kinds of measures won’t ever keep folks off the spectacular cliffs or out of Sunken City, the jumble of broken pavement that was once a stunning residential area at the east end of Point Fermin Park. Victimized by a landslide, the former community began a slow-motion plunge down the cliffs.
The only answer I can think of for this entire sad mess is vigilance. Vigilance for all of us who are regulars. Vigilance for us local parents who need to reinforce again and again the dangers of the cliffs and unfortunately, accepting our own accountability when tragedy occurs.
After the 19th death from falls from our sheer rock walls, including two very young, up-and-coming members of our community, Councilwoman Janice Hahn began to discuss such measures. If they take place, I believe residents will lose – and we will lose big time. We will lose views. We will lose freedom for those who use the area safely. And we will lose – I believe – more children who will consider this even more challenging than before, an even bigger and badder “taboo.”
I don’t know if vigilance is the total answer, but it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle, especially in the case of the frequent suicides that happen there. At first, I liked the signs the council office recently had posted along Point Fermin Park in both Spanish and English that clearly describe the cliff’s dangers of slipping and falling. Even still, there hasn’t been a single day that’s gone by where I haven’t seen parents carrying their babies down the cliff sides, an older woman strolling along in thong-shoes, who was clearly uncomfortable and unstable, despite a middle-aged man guiding her down the rocky edges and people sitting on the very edge of the cliffs.
Other than having the police out in force, I don’t know what else can be done except perhaps for using our own vigilance. Vigilance worked, for instance, in three cases I remember.
One day I was strolling along Point Fermin Park and spotted a teenage boy who had walked out on a storm drain pipe jutting out of the cliff. He crawled out on the drain and began to bounce.
A man in his 50s came around the bend, jogged over to the teenager and immediately told him that if he fell, he would probably die. While not all teenagers would act like this, the youth looked at the man and said: “Oh,” and scaled back over the fence.
Thank you to the man, for that day, he was a hero.
This story is a bit more embarrassing for me.
I once went over the wall in broad daylight – with no intention of killing myself. I watched a sea lion pup trying to climb a rock to hang to get out of the burly, sweeping seas. But each time, the pup was lifted away by powerful waves. I was so overwhelmed by the pup’s plight and wanted to urge him on. “Come on!” I yelped. “You can make it!”
The next thing I knew, a man had launched himself over the wall and was talking to me, murmuring in soothing tones.” Why don’t you step back over the wall with me?” he cajoled. I did.
It didn’t occur to me until months later that he thought I was trying to kill myself. After all, I’m sure this man had read all the many times paramedics have gathered bodies from the bottom of those cliffs – an area plagued by suicides. It wasn’t until months later that I realized he was a hero. I applaud the fact that he took a risk to make sure no one was injured – even if he was wrong. He could have been right on target for all he knew.
The recent deaths of extraordinary people like Mario Danelo, the USC place-kicker, and Megan Maynard, 19, from slips off the edge – have helped to ignite concerns about how we can deal with this spectacular gem we have in this community, and balance that with safety.
It makes me think we have to start depending on the regulars, people like me who walk daily there, the radio-controlled airplane buffs who consistently fly their models on almost a daily basis and even the horse shoe players that were out in Sunken City until they were told to leave because of the cliff’s inherent dangers.
One resident I was discussing this with asked a really good question: “Couldn’t we post a specific phone number?” directly to lifeguards or police so that the visitors can call the minute they know a problem is brewing. I have been to Paseo del Mar in broad day light when a woman wanted to kill herself and was over the wall at the cliff's edge. Had I not been able to race to a nearby patrolling police officer (who believed my story), I don’t know what I would have done.
It seems to me we can put up all the fences and pass out all the citations in the world, and none of it will work. What might, however, is asking those who frequent the area to keep our eyes peeled and to call a special number where we could prevent more people from dying.
That still leaves us with one big problem – how can we possibly watch out for anybody in the entire cliff area sweeping around our coastal town in the middle of the night?
Even if we put up an outrageously big fence, the truth is -- we can't.

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