Heroism of former La Jolla lifeguard Jeff Koch, namesake of under-repair cave, nearly falls through cracks

Jeff Koch (pronounced ‘Cook’) returns to the scene of the 1977 rescue that made him the namesake of the Koch’s Crack sea cave at La Jolla Cove.

The sea was eerily calm on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019 as Jeff Koch paddleboarded up to the cave that’s been in the news for requiring emergency repair work, for shutting down Coast Boulevard, and for posing the risk of a catastrophic cave-in.

Koch’s Crack was named after Koch, 68, in honor of a dramatic rescue the former San Diego Lifeguard made here in 1977.

“Wow, they sure are doing something here,” he said of the barricade, installed by City contractor Flatiron Construction, to seal the unstable cave up with a concrete slurry. (According to the City, it was mostly filled on the day Koch observed it.)

Time has increasingly clouded the story of Koch’s heroism. Koch said his daughter, Emi, told him she once heard a kayak tour guide tell his group that the geological feature was named after “a cook from a restaurant up on Prospect” who made the rescue.

Koch pronounces his last name “Cook,” which is the source of most of the confusion. Three weeks ago, the City of San Diego provided a map of the cave to the Light that misspelled its name “Cook’s Crack.” (This reporter didn’t think to question an official City document on its spelling, which is why the Light got it wrong, too.)

“It’s a German name that my family pronounces like that but I don’t know why,” Koch said. “It’s fine. I don’t like notoriety anyway. I’m pretty shy and retiring.”

The entrance to Koch’s Crack is barricaded off as City contractors fill the sea cave with a concrete slurry to prevent Coast Boulevard above it from caving in.

Koch — who grew up mostly in La Jolla and Laguna Niguel and now lives in downtown San Diego — was a lifeguard at The Cove from 1971 to 1981. He gave it up to become a lawyer.

“I got tired of my dad coming to the beach and saying, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ ” he said.

Koch was a prosecutor for the County District Attorney’s office for three years, then for the State Attorney General’s Office for 27 more.

“I had 100 trials under my belt, and I did pretty good, but I’m glad I’m done,” he said. “I liked lifeguarding better.”

Koch said he paddleboards past his sea cave about once a month, but hasn’t gotten this close in at least 20 years. (As the words escaped his lips, a sea lion loudly barked, as if to welcome him back.)

That fateful day

Koch became as calm as the ocean beneath him as the details of the afternoon of Jan. 16, 1977 suddenly flooded back.

It was a stormy Sunday, he recalled, with waves from a north winter swell breaking 6 to 8 feet. Koch and fellow lifeguard, Jack Martin, had closed The Cove in the morning. But late in the afternoon, the figure of a man caught the corner of Koch’s eye as he stood on the stairs behind the lifeguard tower. The man was crouched over, collecting mussels on a tidal outcropping known as Razor Reef.

Koch tells the story of the fateful events of Jan. 16, 1977.

“Get out of the water immediately!” Koch shouted to the man — later identified as newly arrived Vietnamese-American immigrant Sang Pham — through his megaphone. But there was no response. Koch instructed Martin to call for backup and ran over to the edge of the cliff above Razor Reef.

“As I ran over, I could see another set (of waves) coming,” Koch said. “They just swept him right off the rock.”

Koch spotted Pham in the water. He looked up and raised his hands for help. They locked eyes.

“But there was nothing I could do because I was too high on the cliff,” Koch said. “I couldn’t jump and it would have taken too long to get down.”

Just then, another wave exploded against the cliff. It slammed Pham into a notch in the wall and then, as Koch recalled, “he was gone — nowhere to be found.”

Koch carefully descended to the water, then bobbed around in the huge swells.

“Literally, I’m looking for a body, because I didn’t think anyone could have survived that,” Koch said, “and I can’t find it. There’s nothing there.”

Koch noticed the arrival of Steve Wood, lifeguard at the Children’s Pool. He climbed back up the cliff for a consultation and then, he recalled, “as we’re facing the water looking, from behind us, through a crack in the cliff, we hear this, ‘Help meeee!’”

Pham was stuck inside a cave nobody knew was there.

This also meant that nobody knew if it contained enough room to fit two people — or enough air to keep them both alive for long. But Koch bolted back to the tower and into his wetsuit, for protection from the rocks.

“I figured it was my responsibility to go in and get him,” he said, “since I was the guard at The Cove and the guy who spotted him.”

Koch climbs up the cliffs he descended 42 years ago.

Rescue me

As ambulance sirens screamed up Coast Boulevard, Koch waited for a moment between wave crashes to dive underneath the fissure. That moment refused to come.

“A set came up, so I just covered my head and I got shot through this passageway, maybe 20 feet long,” Koch said. “And when I popped up, I was in some sort of grotto.”

At this point in his story, Koch recalled an old body surfer he used to know named Pete, who lived across Coast Boulevard from the ocean in a cottage.

“Pete used to tell us that when the surf was big, he could feel it break underneath his house,” Koch said. “And we would always say, ‘Oh, yeah, Pete, right.’ But I suddenly realized that Pete was right.”

Koch recalled that the cave wall, illuminated by a single dirty yellow beam of light, was slippery with blood. Pham had wedged himself into a narrow shelf above the water. When the two men locked eyes again, Pham told him, “We are both going to die.” Koch recalled replying, like they were stars in an action movie: “That’s not in the plan.”

In the dim light, Koch managed to grab a rope — lowered by Wood through a fissure in the top of the cave — and tie it around Pham.

“He wasn’t moving by then,” Koch said. “So I jerked him off the rock, carried him back to the passageway and they pulled him straight up.”

Pham was safe. But Koch was too large to escape the same way, and the water in the cave was rising. So Wood helped time his exit so the waves wouldn’t slam him back into the cave.

“There’s a big team who did this,” Koch said. “I’m just the guy who went into the cave.”

On the paddleboard trip back to La Jolla Shores, a kayak tour approached, its guide spewing facts about Cove landmarks to the excited tourists. As an experiment, the Light asked the guide to spell Koch’s Crack.

“Isn’t it Crook’s Crack?” the man replied.

Koch laughed hysterically.

“Oh well, such is fame,” he said. “At least my daughter’s going to love this story!”

Pham found

A few days later, the Light found Pham living in Imperial Beach. When phoned, his voice began shaking.

“How did you find me?” the 71-year-old asked. (He had a unique name and a search-able Facebook page.)

At the time of Pham’s rescue, he said, he was broke and barely spoke English. Two years earlier, he, his pregnant wife and his brother were refugees who had just barely escaped the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. They stayed at Camp Pendleton for three months, before all were taken in by Tony and Erica Toth, owners of Tony’s Best Way Cleaning.

“I cleaned carpets and the house for them,” said Pham, who graduated law school back in Saigon, but had very few skills suitable for the American workforce at the time.

That fateful day began as ordinarily as most did, Pham said. He was out searching for mussels to fish with, to save his family money on food.

“I couldn’t believe how strong the waves were,” he said. “I tried to swim back, but I couldn’t. I was so tired. (The waves) pushed me all the way into the cave and the tide kept going up.”

Happy reunion

Jeff Koch and Sang Pham meet for the first time since Jan. 16, 1977, the day Koch saved Pham’s life in a cave located beneath their feet at La Jolla Cove.

On Sept. 9, 2019, the Light reunited Koch with the man he saved. Pham bear-hugged the former lifeguard as both stood as close to the top of Koch’s Crack as the construction project to restabilize the sea cave would allow.

“You’re my hero!” Pham told Koch with watery eyes. “Without you, I wouldn’t be here today!”

Pham said he had been searching for Koch for years, wanting to express his gratitude. “I asked the lifeguards, I asked The San Diego Union,” he said, “but everybody asked what your name was, and I didn’t know.”

Pham then asked Koch a question he always wanted to know the answer to: “Why didn’t you take me out with you the way you came in?”

Koch explained that wouldn’t have worked; that they needed to hoist him out by rope because Koch wouldn’t have had a way to swim and hold onto him at the same time. “And I didn’t want to lose you again,” Koch added.

Koch and his daughter Emi (right) ask Pham about his life. Emi is a renown surfer, founder of an international coastal nonprofit, and National Geographic's 2018 Adventurer of the Year.
Koch and his daughter Emi (right) ask Pham about his life. Emi is a renown surfer, founder of an international coastal nonprofit, and National Geographic’s 2018 Adventurer of the Year.

Following his stay with the Toths, Pham became a U.S. Postal Service supervisor by night. During the day, he worked as a real-estate agent. After 30 years at his day job, he retired and now sells houses full-time. His oldest child, he said, is now an anesthesiologist living in Alaska, and he and his wife have two other sons who are also doing well.

“I owe it all to you,” Pham told Koch as they hugged again.

“I’m not a hero,” Koch replied. “I was glad I was there to help.”

Koch and Pham exchanged contact information, both saying they looked forward to continuing to reminisce during a dinner out with their families.