|The coroner's private report on the death of Natalie Wood.
||[Nov. 20th, 2011|06:09 am]
With news that the LA County DA has reopened the case of Natalie Wood's death we bring you...|
The coroner's private report on the death of Natalie Wood.
From the book Coroner - by Dr. Thomas Noguchi M.D.
When Paul Miller's report on the real facts of the death of Natalie Wood arrived, I read it - and decided not to release the document to the press. It added details the media would only call "gory" and "sensational." The report did not alter the official coroner's conclusion of an accidental drowning. So, rather than create more media indignation over "too many details," I reluctantly filed away that report. This is the first time the facts it uncovered, which re-create Natalie Wood's last moments, have been revealed by me. And it is both a tragic and a heroic story.
Rereading the report today, I can see Isthmus Bay again in my mind's eye, dark and threatening in the night, the cold rain slanting down upon ships rocking in the water. And I recall the day Miller brought me the report. We sat in my apartment in Marina Del Rey, overlooking the same ocean which broke against the shores of Santa Catalina thirty miles to the west.
Miller leaned toward me earnestly as he said, "You had it wrong, Tom. Natalie Wood didn't die like you think. She had class."
He drew a map of Isthmus Bay showing where the boats, including Splendour, were moored that night. Then he drew an arrow from the west, passing through the island mountains and pointing toward the ships in the bay. "The basic factor is the wind funnel," he said.
From my own observations of the island on my trip three years before, I knew the phenomenon to which he referred. The jet stream sweeps from the west over Catalina Island, and in the mountains it forms a funnel which blows straight down into the bay where the Wagners' yacht was moored. Splendour faced in the wind, as did its dinghy tied to the stern.
"After she untied the line," Miller continued, "the dinghy would have been blown out toward the mainland. It would never have made a ninety-degree turn and headed down the coast with the wind funnel hitting it from the side. Remember, an inflatable boat in the water is like a balloon with the wind blowing it."
It was cold that night when Natalie Wood, dressed only in a nightgown, wool socks and a down jacket, appeared on the deck of Splendour and descended the swimming step to the dinghy. Was she angry at her husband and rushing off alone? Forensic evidence, such as the fingernail scratches on the side of the dinghy, the brush-type abrasion on her cheek, and the untouched algae on the swim step, seemed to indicate that she was trying to board the dinghy, not just adjust its rope, when the accident happened.
But Miller's evidence provided the possibility of a third explanation, which, according to my interpretation, confirmed Wagner's story of the accident. Considering the wind funnel, when Natalie Wood, for whatever reason, untied the boat, the wind was strong and would have pushed it away from the yacht. And it is quite possible that, instead of trying to step into the dinghy, she might have been reaching for it and lost her balance.
Whatever her purpose, she fell - and the cold water closed over her head. But when she bobbed to the surface, she must have felt there was no danger. She was still only a few feet away from the safety of the yacht. Not only that, she had taken hold of the inflatable boat. The widespread bruise on her right arm showed that she hooked her arm over the side of the dinghy, knowing the boat would hold her up safely until she caught her breath.
Too late, she must have realized something strange was happening. She and the dinghy were being swept swiftly away from the yacht - ten yards, twenty, thirty. She hadn't realized the strength of the wind funnel. Within seconds the dinghy was moving farther and farther out in the water, too distant for her to swim back to the yacht.
She must have called out for help at that point. But her cries went unheard on Splendour, and on other vessels too. The rock music blaring from loudspeakers at the party ashore drowned out Natalie Wood's desperate calls from the surface of the dark sea. Yet there was still hope. Miss Wayne and her friend did hear her shouts. But when they looked outside, they could see nothing in the dark, and they thought they heard people on a neighboring boat say they were coming to her rescue.
Now Natalie Wood was no doubt becoming really frightened. Her cries were going unheard. No lights played across the water, no boats started out to her rescue. Still, she felt she was safe because of the dinghy. She could crawl into it, start its engine, and be back to the warmth of the yacht in minutes.
But it was then that she must have suffered her most terrifying shock. She tried to climb aboard the dinghy which would save her, and discovered she couldn't do it. The rubber sides of the dinghy were large and cylindrical; it would have been difficult in the best of circumstances for her to reach over them from the water to hoist herself up. Forensic evidence revealed that she may have gone to the rear of the boat and used the motor for leverage. There was a metal frame beneath the motor in which you can place your foot. Swimmers often use this technique: with your back to the dinghy, you place one arm around the motor and a foot in the brace, and push up to board the dinghy from the water. The bruises on the back of Natalie Wood's lower legs suggested she may have tried to do that.
But it didn't work. She couldn't make it into the boat. Frantically, she attempted again and again to hoist her body up into the safety of the dinghy - but the jacket dragged her back down into the water every time.
Finally she realized she was being swept into mortal danger as the dinghy pulled her farther and farther out toward the open sea. She might drown or die of hypothermia, the loss of body temperature, in the icy water. What could she do?
Natalie Wood fought for her life in that cold November ocean. She did not give, up. Instead, she began to perform a feat that was both unique and gallant. And she almost achieved a miracle.
Clinging to a boat being swept out into the open sea, her body already becoming numb in the cold water, she decided that her only hope was somehow to propel that dinghy into the teeth of the wind, back toward the shore of Catalina. It must have seemed hopeless at first. The wind pushed the boat like an air bubble. But, desperately, she started kicking her legs as hard as she could, and paddling the water with her free arm. And it worked. The boat ceased its movement out to sea and started, ever so slowly, back toward the island - and safety.
A mild current of one knot was running south, and, paddling in a dark, windy sea beside the dinghy, she pushed the boat along with the current, edging it ever closer toward the shore. But the southern drift took her away from the safe harbor with its yachts whose lights shone in the distance. In fact, the bay was now behind her. But she was approaching closer and closer to the beach - four hundred yards, three hundred fifty yards. If she could just hang on, she would be safe on the shore.
But numbness now crept all through her body. The heavy jacket pulled her down, and its weight sapped her strength. Fighting in the ocean, she saw the cove ahead. Blue Cavern Point. No boats lay at anchor there, but it was a haven from the wind which was her enemy. Minutes to go. She must keep paddling.
Natalie Wood, a brave young woman, tragically lost her fight against the specter, death, less than two hundred yards from shore. Hypothermia caused her to lose strength, then consciousness, then finally her last feeble grip on the boat. She sank beneath the waves and drowned. Only minutes later, the boat she had so painfully and courageously maneuvered for a mile landed safely on the beach.