LOS ANGELES — The tide was just high enough for Skip Staats to take his wooden dinghy up to the seawall, where he likes to sit and sip coffee in the morning sun.
Had it been any more shallow he might not have been on the scene to help save a family of four whose van plunged off the Balboa Island Ferry and into Newport Harbor off California early Friday.
Staats, 46, is credited with rescuing two children and their father from the sinking minivan, which was shoved into the water when it was rammed from behind by a Mercedes-Benz.
A passing fisherman pulled the mother to safety.
"They were just sitting there, shocked," said Staats, describing the scene inside the van, which was still bobbing with its windows above the water when he motored up.
As he approached the rear driver's side, he saw a girl still strapped into a child safety seat. "Get the girl," the child's father told him calmly from the front seat.
The parents, with a 4-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, were on vacation from Taiwan, according to Newport Beach Fire Department spokeswoman Jennifer Schulz.
Staats, a surfer and sailor, said he was able to lift her into his tiny boat and then pulled the boy from his seat and helped the father crawl out of the driver's window. The mother, meanwhile, had climbed over to the driver's side and James Donoghue, 47, who had taken the day off to go shark fishing in his new boat, was able to pull her into his skiff.
Less than a minute later, the van sank.
The family, who came through the ordeal without injury, was driven by police to a rental car agency and continued their Southern California vacation. The parents declined interview requests.
Police said they received a call about 9 a.m. that someone had rear-ended a car on the ferry and pushed it into the water.
According to authorities and eyewitnesses, the driver of the Mercedes said that she tried to hit her brake but that her car accelerated.
The Mercedes hit the minivan with enough force to propel it into the water and shove it about 30 feet from the ferry dock.
If police find any safety deficiencies, ferry owner Seymour Beek said, he will re-evaluate the procedures. Beek, who appeared shaken but relieved, came to the scene after the accident.
He could remember two other times that cars had toppled into the water. Both were in the 1980s, he said, and no one was hurt either time.
"I just remembered," he joked later. "It's Friday the 13th."