Bill Walker was not a strong swimmer.
But when the 48-year-old San Jose man saw a family desperately struggling in a violent Pacific Ocean current off a notoriously dangerous Monterey County beach, he jumped in to help.
The act of bravery cost him his life. Yet it saved two others.
The longtime operations manager at San Jose’s Silitronics died Saturday on Monastery Beach shortly after pulling a young girl and her grandmother to safety; the coroner’s report called his death an “ocean drowning.”
Interviews with witnesses, the state parks superintendent, a coroner’s detective, Cal Fire and a sheriff’s report indicate that Walker had gone into the water to save the woman, her daughter and granddaughter, who along with perhaps three or more others had been caught by a rough current.
While Walker was able to save the grandmother and granddaughter, he tried but couldn’t save the girl’s mother, 31-year-old Nalini Kommineni of Cupertino. She was pronounced dead Wednesday after her organs were harvested to help others, according to the Monterey County coroner.
They all fell victim to a lovely but deadly strip of beach that’s part of the Carmel River State Beach. Because of its rough rip currents, locals have nicknamed the area “Mortuary Beach.”
“There’s not a person here who doesn’t want that beach closed to swimming,” said coroner’s detective Kevin Gardepie. “It may be great for scuba diving, but we have too many fatalities there because of the rip currents.”
From 1985 to 2009, there have been at least 16 deaths at Monastery Beach, according to the Divers Alert Network medical research department and news archives from the Monterey County Herald.
“People just get sucked out by the undertow,” said Monterey County sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Richards. “There are signs up and down the beach about the dangers. But I guess people just don’t pay attention.”
Hours before he died, Walker and his girlfriend, Barbara Basinger, 45, of Carmichael, had spent the day taking pictures and enjoying the wildlife at Point Lobos.
Then, the couple decided to watch the sunset and headed to the beach.
“We both loved listening to the waves and watching the surf,” Basinger said.
She closed her eyes and lay down on the sand. But she jumped up with a start just before 6 p.m. to see Walker about 100 feet out from shore.
“People were yelling and shouting and Bill just dove in,” she said.
Walker managed to bring the grandmother and child back to shore. Then he went back out for Kommineni. As they were carried farther out and Walker began to struggle himself, he let go of her, reports state.
By that time, lifeguards arrived and went in after Kommineni.
“Men helped pull Bill in,” Basinger said. “At first, he was sitting up, trying to catch his breath. But then he just passed out.”
Sheriff’s reports show that Deputy Mike Fritsche and a good Samaritan performed CPR until paramedics came. But it was too late. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Walker’s death has devastated his co-workers and family.
Colleagues from Silitronics, a microelectronics manufacturer where Walker worked for 25 years, have written heartfelt remembrances on an online guest book about the man they said helped them on the job and who was kind and thoughtful.
Walker’s family had already been hit by tragedy. Last year, his younger brother, Ron Walker, died when his truck skidded on black ice and crashed in the Sierra.
That leaves his parents, Charles and Judy, and surviving brother, David, all of San Jose.
“The family is just so distraught,” said Christine Walker, David’s wife.
She said that being the eldest son, Walker was the go-to guy for everyone’s needs, especially his elderly parents, who have both suffered health problems in recent years.
“Bill would always be the one checking on his parents,” Christine Walker said. “One of the defining things about his life was how much he cared for others. So dying how he did isn’t a surprise to anyone.”
A bachelor, Walker met Basinger nearly three years ago at a woodworking and crafts show in Sacramento. They caught each other’s eye at lunch and were soon a couple.
“He was always trying to make me happy,” Basinger said. “He wrote me love poems. He gave me hugs all the time.”
Knowing that Walker, a Westmont High School graduate who loved woodworking, photography and golf, died being a hero is a small silver lining to his family. What also helps is knowing that he was madly in love with a woman who was by his side during his darkest, and bravest, hour.
“Bill died head over heels in love with Barbara,” Christine Walker said. “We know that he died a happy man.”