Hero is a label that is sometimes overused.
Those who serve in the military or as law enforcement, firefighters, or first responders are all heroes when they put themselves in harm’s way for us. In a rugged mountain environment, should an emergency rescue be necessary, these brave men and women can be the last thing standing between someone’s life and death.
North Shore local Scott Baumgardner has been there numerous times. Over a long career as a deputy with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, a firefighter/EMT with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, a Marine Patrol officer, a Sheriff’s diver, and a volunteer with the Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue Team, the Tahoe Truckee High School alumnus has worn many hats and saved many lives. One rescue incident he recalls in great detail took an unexpected turn.
On July 27, 1985, Baumgardner was training a new partner aboard the Sheriff’s patrol boat, PB 7. At about 6 p.m., he and Deputy Dave Harris were dispatched to a possible sailboat in trouble off Cedar Flat. At the time he began his search pattern in the reported area, the swell was 4 to 6 feet.
Baumgardner saw a small floatplane pass low overhead and circle back. He contacted the Coast Guard to confirm that it was engaged in the search for the sailboat. As the Coast Guard replied with their denial of any aircraft involved, the little plane began a descent from the south. He turned the patrol boat toward the plane to watch as the pilot brought the Cessna 206 to just above wave height. Suddenly, a fountain of water exploded and the aircraft disappeared from view.
Telling Harris to notify dispatch and the Coast Guard of an airplane down, Baumgardner hammered the throttle on the 25-foot Wellcraft and headed toward the crash site. As they neared it, only the underside of the pontoons could be seen above the waves.
As the deputy cautiously angled in the patrol boat to avoid swamping the capsized aircraft, he spotted a man hanging onto a strut. Handing the helm to Harris, he tossed a ring buoy to Edward Gohl, the 44-year-old owner and pilot of the plane, who shouted that his wife was still inside the aircraft. As they pulled the man aboard the boat and quickly checked him for injuries, Gohl said his wife was behind the front seats of the submerged plane. A trained diver, Baumgardner stripped out of his shirt, shoes, and holster and donned a mask, snorkel, and fins and slipped into the lake.
Approaching the pontoons, he realized the fuselage of the plane was hanging engine down, by one remaining strut. If the heavy swells were to break it, the plane’s fuselage and Elsa Gohl, 40, would quickly sink to the bottom of the lake. Holding his breath, he dived through the doorway. In near zero visibility, he felt around the cabin, finding nothing but debris.
“I was real worried the plane would sink. I figured she floated out or was in the tail section or wasn’t there at all,” he said, according to Tahoe World.
Swimming the 20 feet back to the patrol boat, he again asked Gohl where his wife might be. Gohl said she had to be in the back of the plane. Harris helped the deputy into his scuba tank and respirator and Baumgardner swam back to the aircraft. Breathing tank air, he gingerly dived back into the upside down cabin, feeling his way in the darkness toward the tail.
As Baumgardner felt around, his tank became stuck between the headrest and ceiling. Freeing himself, he lunged up toward the tail and voilà: He felt a foot and leg.
“I thought, she’s pinned in there and she’s unconscious,” Baumgardner recalled. “Then the foot moved. I just figured she’s got to come out.”
He pulled on her leg and Elsa Gohl came free. But they weren’t in the clear yet. As he guided her to the cabin door, his scuba gear became entangled in debris. Realizing she was running out of air, he quickly pushed her out. She swam to the surface and grabbed onto the pontoon strut.
Surfacing, he pulled her toward the boat. She was suddenly pulled under and frantically attempted to pull away from him. The airplane’s mooring line had wrapped around her neck. Carefully freeing her, they swam to the patrol boat. Baumgardner raced to Sierra Boat Marina while Harris checked Elsa for injuries.
A North Tahoe ambulance transported the Gohls to Tahoe Forest Hospital, where both were treated for minor injuries and released.
Soon after the rescue, the aircraft sank 50 feet to the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
Later, authorities learned that Gohl had intended to land his plane on the lake by their Carnelian Bay vacation home. After the plane nosed over in the high swell, Gohl had struggled out the door. Elsa, on the other hand, was not so lucky and ended up being trapped after her seat broke. She took full advantage of her diminutive stature to get into an air pocket in the tail. She had about 6 inches of air left when she felt Baumgardner’s hand on her foot.
Now 74, Chilean-born Elsa Gohl told Moonshine that she is most grateful that her two children were not aboard the plane that terrifying day. Had Baumgardner not grabbed her foot, she said: “I would have died. I couldn’t see anything and didn’t know where the door was.” She went on to say that she hopes that Baumgardner continues to enjoy a long, healthy and happy retirement.
“He’s a good, brave man,” she said.
Ultimately, the report of a sailboat in trouble that brought PB 7 to the area of the crash turned out to be a false alarm. Trained rescue staff being at the scene of the plane crash was a classic, unexplainable, right-place-right-time scenario out on the nearly 200-square-mile blue beauty that is Tahoe.
Baumgardner will tell you, as will most heroes, that he was just doing his job.