By CHELSEA JENSEN
A North Carolina family of five has an off-duty firefighter, aware beachgoers and well-placed rescue tubes to thank for their lives following a harrowing rescue Sunday morning at Pololu Valley in North Kohala.
About 11 a.m. Sunday, Jeff Maki, a North Kohala firefighter, heard people calling for help as he and his family ascended the second switchback on their hike out of Pololu. He quickly turned around and headed back to the valley floor to help the visitors struggling in the waters.
The five people, who were about 150 feet offshore, had been pulled out in a rip current generated by a wind swell, Maki said. The group had also been split by that time with two people located 20 yards away from the others.
“It was dragging, it just sucked them out,” he said. “And, they were getting beaten.”
Maki, who also has experience as a lifeguard on Oahu and Florida, quickly grabbed two rescue tubes from aware beachgoers like Waimea
resident Kelly Hoyle, who had already detached the life-saving devices and tried to help the struggling swimmers. He then headed out in the water, only able to see three of the victims at the time.
“This guy (Maki) just came out of thin air, comes up to me and asks if these people were in distress,” Hoyle said of the rescuer she later learned was a Hawaii County first responder. “He then said, ‘I’m going,’ grabbed the rescue tubes and headed out.”
The valley, which has no lifeguard on duty, currently has four rescue tubes, or personal flotation devices used to stabilize distressed swimmers before rescue. Two were installed by resident Mike Varney and two by the Kohala Swim Club. The nonprofit Alex and Duke De Rego Foundation is taking over efforts to install the tubes at 15 West Hawaii beaches.
When Maki eventually got through the pounding waves and to the first three people, he said he gave them the two rescue tubes and helped them into shallower waters where bystanders and Hoyle helped them to shore.
Maki then went back out farther in the water to assist the remaining two people: a father and daughter, who had become visible again to Maki after they were pushed in from the rip current and into the surf zone. He then helped the two to shore.
A photo shows the Hawi resident hoisting the father atop his shoulders, carrying him to a safe, dry spot on the beach.
“He was so weak that he couldn’t stand — he couldn’t even talk,” Hoyle said of the near-drowning victim. “He was breathing, but in and out of consciousness.”
Luckily, Maki and Hoyle said, two doctors were hiking in the valley and able to assist the man. Hoyle’s husband ran to the top of the valley to summon medical help because inside the valley there is no cell phone service. Maki also made the trek up the less-than-a-mile trail out of Pololu Valley to ensure that help was coming.
The man was eventually air-lifted from the valley and rushed to a hospital. Stephens Media was unable to track down the man or other victims involved in the rescue as of press time Wednesday.
Maki, Hoyle and Varney each said the rescue tubes played an important role in saving the family from the rough waters at Pololu.
“If it wasn’t for those rescue tubes, I don’t know what would have happened,” said Hoyle, who added many swimmers who find themselves in trouble rely on surfers for rescue since the valley has no lifeguard on duty.
Kauai’s Rescue Tube Foundation, where Varney said the idea to install the devices on Hawaii Island came from, has more than 200 rescue tubes stationed around the island that as of September 2011 had helped save nearly 40 lives.
That’s why Shirley De Rego, of the Alex and Duke De Rego Foundation, is taking Varney’s efforts to install the rescue tubes at beaches to the next level. The foundation’s mission is to bring awareness to and educate about ocean safety and first-aid, she said.
The nonprofit has already ordered 15 rescue tubes, each costing about $87, to install at beaches around West Hawaii, including Kawaihae Harbor, Beach 69, Paniau, Mahukona and others. De Rego said she is in the final stages of paperwork to get county approval to install the signs.
“If it can save one life, it’s worth every penny,” said De Rego, whose son, Alexander, died at age 12 after falling into the ocean in 2005. Her other son, Duke, died at age 14 following a golf cart accident in 2010.
For more information on rescue tubes and the Alex and Duke De Rego Foundation, visit alexanddukederegofoundation.com, or email De Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Chelsea Jensen at email@example.com.