Hundreds of Community Members Gather to Pray for Missing Students

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Community members held a prayer service Wednesday afternoon to honor two UC Santa Cruz students who remain missing after being swept into sea Monday night. The students were hit by a wave on Bonny Doon Beach, just 10 miles north on Highway 1.

Shireen Agha Ahsan, 19, a Kresge College sophomore, and Ahmad Solaiman Nourzaie, 25, a College Nine sophomore, went hiking with three other friends. Agah Ahsan, Nourzaie and a third UCSC student hiked down a cliff to get closer to the water when a wave hit the bluff the three students were standing on. Estimated to be 15 feet tall, the wave pulled Agha Ahsan and Nourzaie into the ocean, and the third student climbed back up the cliff uninjured.

Emergency responders received a 911 call around 5 p.m. Monday. They immediately began a ground search and added a helicopter search an hour later. Both searches continued until midnight. A ground search resumed Tuesday morning from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., while the helicopter search resumed around 1:00 p.m. At around 8 p.m. Tuesday, the Coast Guard suspended the search.

Adam Stanton of the Eleventh District Coast Guard, which is based in Alameda and serves several western states, said the decision to suspend a search “depends on a lot of different factors. The majority is time. You also have to factor in how much area you’ve searched and if you think that’s adequate.”

The search lasted 22 hours spanning 46 square miles and included members of the Coast Guard, CAL Fire, Santa Cruz City, the County Sheriff’s Department among other state and local agencies. The search team used two boats and two helicopters, but found no sign of the missing students.

“The water temperature was ranging from mid 40s to 60s,” Stanton said, “and a lot of people don’t realize that even in 60-degree water for an hour, your body starts going into a hypothermic state.”

Stanton could not say for sure whether he believes the students are alive but said that it would be “very difficult” to survive.

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Photo by Casey Amaral.

Fazal Faizi, Nourzaie’s uncle, said that every time someone has rung the doorbell over the last couple days, Nourzaie’s mother Jamil has perked up with excitement, thinking her son has finally come home.

Grieving friends and family members gathered at the Bonny Doon Beach on Wednesday afternoon for a prayer service. Kazim Ahsan, Agha Ahsan’s cousin, sent a press release inviting members of the UCSC community to join in prayer and also to urge the rescue team to continue its search. In the press release, Ahsan described the Coast Guard’s response as “lukewarm.”

At the service, community members took the search into their own hands. Several people were seen hiking up to the cliff from the bluff below, barefoot and muddy. One was Naseer Ahmed, who said he was closer to Nourzaie than he was to his own brothers.

“We’ve been here searching for the last two days ourselves,” Ahmed said, wiping his hands on his jeans.

There was no formal program for the vigil, which had about 200 attendees. It simply gave loved ones space and time to grieve and reflect on the ways Agha Ahsan and Nourzaie had touched their lives.

Ahmed said Nourzaie was incredibly kind and was the type of person who frequently helped strangers who had flat tires and were stuck on the side of the road.

“This was the type of kid who would put his life on the line to help anyone,” Ahmed said.

Agha Ahsan’s roommate Saffia Hossain Zadeh, a UCSC graduate student, called her “the best example of a person.”

“She had everything together,” Hossain Zadeh said. “She captured all aspects of life and put them together beautifully.”

As people talked amongst themselves, two individuals got on a megaphone and spoke to the crowd. One was Jafer Baig, Agha Ahsan’s cousin, and the other was Nabi M. Raza, a cleric from a mosque Agha Ahsan attended in her hometown of Palo Alto, who led a group prayer.

Baig announced that he had contacted Congressman Sam Farr, who said he was willing to help the families in whatever way he could. Baig also addressed many attendees’ concerns that the rescue team did not put forth its full effort. He stressed that the Coast Guard only carries out searches for people it believes to be alive, but as Stanton of the Coast Guard said the chances of survival are slim, given the ocean’s cold temperatures and rough currents.

“Initially I was really mad and so were a lot of the other people because we thought the Coast Guard guard let go of this opportunity too easily,” Baig said in an interview, “but we were not aware of the protocol they follow. The protocol is very straightforward — they look for living survivors, not dead bodies.”

Baig said he understands the Coast Guard’s policy but said that it makes finding the students much more difficult.

“The only way forward,” Baig said, “and I’m being very realistic here, is to get a private investigation or private divers. But considering the water roughness we’re dealing with here, it’s not that easy.”

Attendees and extended family members wondered about using drones to find the students, or perhaps some kind of technology to locate the SIM cards in their cell phones. But Baig said that close family members have accepted the incident.

Members of the UCSC community attended, including Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway, Police Chief Nader Oweis and staff from Counseling and Psychological Services.

“We are part of that family — part of that community,” Galloway said. “It’s important that we be here. It’s not for them to see us, but for us to help support them. For the families to see there are enough people here who cared about their children — that’s important.”

The skies were cloudy and at least a dozen attendees’ clothes were stained with mud, but the beach hills were covered in yellow flowers after the recent rain and some attendees remained positive that their search efforts might be fruitful.

“We just want something, a clue,” Nourzaie’s friend Ahmed said. “We know they are probably not with us at this moment, but we just want closure.”

On-campus counselors are available for students to speak to through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at (831) 459-2628.