A well-known Wilson High coach and elementary school teacher in Long Beach was killed Thursday afternoon in a collision after he suffered a medical emergency on the way to a meet, friends and fellow coaches said.
Latham Bell, 53, of Seal Beach was driving a 2006 Dodge Durango that crashed into a restaurant near Pacific Coast Highway and Cherry Avenue.
Three others, all of them pedestrians dining at the restaurant, were also injured in the collision at 3:37 p.m. but are expected to survive.
The Wilson aquatics community is mourning the sudden and tragic loss of Bell, an assistant swim coach. Bell was on the way to a Wilson swim meet, where the team would win a state record 45th consecutive Moore League swim championship, the longest-ever streak in any sport in California. The Bruins pulled off a 30-point turnaround from that earlier meeting to claim the title.
Wilson head coach Eric Berg didn’t find out about Bell’s accident until after the swim meet. Both Wilson alums, Berg and Bell were lifelong friends whose parents attended Wilson together.
“It’s been a wide spectrum of emotion,” said Berg. “He’s one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known. He was always there with a helping hand. He was a father, grandfather, mentor to a lot of kids.”
Bell worked full time as a teacher at Bixby Elementary School.
Police said Friday that the Durango was traveling west on East Pacific Coast Highway when the driver experienced a medical emergency and lost control of the vehicle. His car careened into the patio area of Los Potros restaurant in the 1900 block of East Pacific Coast Highway.
“The vehicle drifted to the right, off the roadway, colliding with the raised curb on Pacific Coast Highway, crossed the sidewalk, and collided into the patio area, striking three patrons,” police said in a statement.
A female patron was trapped under the vehicle and was initially aided by community members and subsequently extricated by Long Beach Fire Department personnel, police said.
The driver and three others were taken to local hospitals.
The cause of Bell’s death was not yet known. It was unclear whether it was related to the crash or the medical emergency.
Bell was a well-known waterman in town, having previously served as staff commodore at the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club. He spent decades volunteering with the yacht club and teaching young sailors the ropes. He also served as a judge in international sailing competitions.
“To say that Latham will be missed is indeed an understatement,” said current Commodore Chuck Clay. "ABYC and Wilson were his life. He will live on forever in our hearts, and his impact on the aquatic community is massive. Bell was someone who always gave back and his legacy will carry on."
Bell’s shouts at the start of a swimming races had become a familiar and comforting part of the historic program.
“Latham had a booming voice and a huge heart that he dedicated to the Wilson aquatics community,” said Wilson water polo coach Jeff Nesmith.
“He was truly a Renaissance man,” said Tula Trigonis, owner of Salon Soma is Belmont Shore, who met Bell while they were students at Long Beach State. “He loved children, his own and the ones he taught as well as the athletes he coached. I remember for holiday parties, he would borrow his Dad’s plaid pants and wear them for a preppy look.”
Bell was an All-Moore League swimmer himself at Wilson and had been proud to volunteer at his alma mater for the past decade.
Word spread quickly late Thursday night via text and call, so by the time students and teachers arrived on Wilson’s campus, everyone knew he’d died.
“There’s been a lot of bonding and helping each other. Lots of crying and hugging,” said Berg.
Just a few hours before, on Thursday night, the Wilson boys celebrated their historic championship by diving into the pool at Cabrillo High, where the league finals were held. They celebrated together and Berg shed tears of joy in the pool alongside them.
Friday night the entire Long Beach high school aquatic community gathered again at Cabrillo for the girls league championship, with a chair left open where Bell would have sat, and the initials “LB” written on the Wilson team’s shoulders. Coaches agreed that Bell’s initials were fitting given his love for Long Beach aquatics and for his alma mater.
“His legacy will always be remembered and the initials LB now stand for something extra special on the Wilson team,” said Nesmith.