SAN FRANCISCO — Howard Kuljian and his family were out for a walk on a damp morning at Big Lagoon beach, playing fetch with their dog, Fran, as a 10-foot surf churned the water just feet away like a washing machine.
Signs near the beach warned of "sneaker waves," the kind that suddenly roar ashore.
Kuljian tossed a stick that took the dog down to the water's edge, and in an instant, authorities said, a wave swallowed the dog, setting off a nightmarish scramble.
"Everything kind of snowballed from there," Coast Guard Lt. Bernie Garrigan said.
Kuljian's 16-year-old son, Gregory, ran to save the dog, only to be captured by the surging surf himself. Kuljian, 54, followed, and then his wife, Mary Scott, 57. On shore, their 18-year-old daughter, Olivia, and Gregory's girlfriend could only watch.
Both parents' bodies were later recovered, but the boy — presumed dead — is still missing.
The dog eventually made it back to shore.
News of Saturday's tragedy shocked many in the small college town of Arcata on the Northern California coastline about 280 miles north of San Francisco.
At Big Lagoon beach, a short drive from Arcata, signs posted near the parking lot warn beachgoers not to turn their back to the surf and to pay special attention to sneaker waves.
"Because the beach is designed that way, when that 10-foot wall breaks, it surges up on the beach and surges back really fast," said Garrigan, the Coast Guard officer. "It's like a cyclical washing machine."