Sixteen years ago, a young Coastside man careened off the cliff near Gray Whale Cove. He would not be the last to lose his life to a dangerous 200-foot drop from Highway 1 to the Pacific Ocean below.
The man was later identified as 23-year-old Jason Affolter. On June 9, 2004, his body washed up on the beach after he drove his vehicle off the cliff. Affolter was just one of the recorded incidents of people who died this way. There would be others.
This last year alone, there have been three fatalities near that spot: Tracey Ivori Sinclair of San Francisco on Dec. 30, 2019; Yuri Kim of San Francisco on Aug. 31, 2020; and Ion Bolea of South San Francisco on Nov. 12, 2020.
On Dec. 3, Caltrans sent a crew to install barriers along the cliffside in an apparent effort to alleviate the danger. The work comes after years of anguish and advocacy led by loved ones of the deceased.
Alejandro Lopez, spokesman for Caltrans, confirmed that the recent incidents and concerns from locals and elected officials prompted the agency to place 140 feet of temporary concrete barriers and enhanced curve warning signs. A more permanent project is currently scheduled for 2024.
Public attention for the need for improved safety at the location stemmed from a case in 2017.
That year, Richard Moss, a 22-year-old Montara man, went missing. His father flew from Hawaii and launched a 51-day search. The investigation revealed that on May 25, 2017, Richard Moss was on his way to work when he drove off the cliff.
Dan Moss reached out to others whose lives were altered by tragedy at that stretch of Highway 1. Together, they held public protests and called for the state to do something to prevent more unnecessary deaths.
Among those advocates was Glenda Cota, the wife of Affolter.
“The goal was to do anything that I could to prevent other families from going through the same thing,” Cota said in a recent interview with Review.
Cota was pregnant with their first child when Affolter did. When Moss reached out to her to join in his advocacy efforts, Cota thought of her son, who was a teenager by then, and how difficult it was raising him as a single mother.
“To this day, I’m still dealing with the effects of that. I had to raise my son and he’s had to go through it as well. Not knowing his father, not being old enough to know circumstances, doesn’t mean he hasn’t been affected,” she said.
She agreed to join Moss.
“It is sort of a weird club to be a part of,” she said.
Dan Stegink is a Coastside resident and a rescue diver who has now searched for nine vehicles that fell off the cliff. Together Moss and Stegink have kept the issue alive long after Richard Moss’ death. They had a meeting with Caltrans at former state Sen. Jerry Hill’s office. And talks with the agency have continued as recently as this summer.
The new barriers near Gray Whale Cove parking lot are a short-term fix. “Caltrans will upgrade and extend existing safety barriers in this area as part of a safety improvement project scheduled for 2024,” Lopez said.
Both Cota and Stegink say the barriers that went up in early December are a victory. Stegink said he acknowledges how difficult it is to get something like this done because it requires the approval of several different agencies, including the California Coastal Commision.
Lopez said details like what type of long-term barrier the agency should use are still in the planning stages and Caltrans will be seeking input from locals and the California Coastal Commission as part of the environmental review process.
But Stegink said the real victory lies in the barriers’ effectiveness at preventing future deaths. If that doesn’t happen, then there needs to be another solution, he said.
“People are dying over and over and it’s something that can be prevented,” Stegink said.
Stegnik has heard theories and proffered his own about why vehicles go off at that particular site. Some say those driving south will lose signal at the Devil’s Slide tunnels and when they emerge, their phones go off with notifications that take their eyes off the road. Another theory is about sudden fog that obscures the cliff drop.
Stegink’s own theory is the layout of the telephone lines overhead. From a driver’s perspective, it appears the lines go from the highway off the cliff, creating the illusion that the road continues where it actually drops off.
The last two accidents prompted rescue responses that resulted in recovery of the vehicles and quick identification of their drivers. That’s because the fall happened when the waterline had receded. But this isn’t always the case.
Stegink has spotted what he believes are cars but that have deteriorated underwater. Some may be linked to accidents that no one ever learned about, perhaps because they happened before the advent of mobile phones. And there have been times when he knows to look for a specific vehicle but can never find it because of the dynamism of the sediment and the current.
“The ocean is pretty strong,” he said.