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Local News

Man in Wheelchair Falls Off Dock and Into Water at Stearns Wharf

Bystanders rush to help the man, listed in critical condition; the incident spurs debate about whether a railing should be installed as a safety precaution

A man in a wheelchair was in critical condition Thursday after falling off the side of Stearns Wharf and into the ocean, according to the Santa Barbara City Fire Department.

Goleta resident Eddie Garcia was fishing off the east side of the wharf about 2:15 p.m. when a woman asked him to take a picture of her and her husband, who was in a wheelchair. Minutes later, Garcia heard someone yell, “Someone fell off the pier. Call 9-1-1!” he said.

When Santa Barbara resident Garett Lewis heard the call for help, he ran to the west side of the pier south of the bait shop as two men jumped in the water. The man in the wheelchair, whose identity has not been released, was holding onto a wooden post with his head face down in the water, said Lewis, who grabbed a nearby buoy and threw it to the man. But even with the support of the buoy and another man, it was difficult to keep the large man above water, according to witnesses.

“It all happened so fast,” said Lewis, adding that he thinks the man’s wife went to the bathroom and left him unattended.

Personnel from the Santa Barbara police and fire departments quickly arrived on scene, as did Harbor Patrol, who hoisted the man into their boat about 15 minutes after he fell in, Garcia said.

The man was transported to the east side of the wharf to the personnel loading zone, according to the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. Authorities continued medical treatment on the wharf as the man was spitting up foam, Garcia said. Authorities said the man was transported to the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Trauma Center, where he was listed in critical condition.

“There was no indication of foul play; it was just an unfortunate accident,” Santa Barbara police Lt. Jim Phleging said.

There are large blocks of wood but no guard railing toward the end of the wharf. Garcia said he hoped this would be a wake-up call for better safety precautions.

“It’s very dangerous,” he said. “In Goleta they have a railing. I don’t know why they don’t have one here.”

Lewis agreed: “It should be safer. Maybe they should build a rail. I could see the benefit for kids, someone in a wheelchair, a runaway bike, anyone.”

But Santa Barbara resident Stephen Olson said the couple should have been more responsible.

“Putting a rail in would be a bad idea. Look at all these people here now. No one is falling over the edge,” he said. “People should be responsible for themselves. It would absolutely diminish the experience. It’s been open like this since the 1800s, and if you have one person every five years fall over, that shouldn’t justify changing something that works.”

Goleta resident Bob Moran said it should be safer and supported installation of a railing.

“We’re talking about a man’s life,” Garcia said.

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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