On Dec. 28, 2002, Linda D. Kitzmiller of Blairsville, Penn., saw a tragedy she will remember the rest of her life: the drowning deaths of husband and teenage son in rough waters on Kaua’i’s Eastside.
Based on witness accounts, Kaua’i County officials initially reported David Kitzmiller, 47, got in trouble while swimming off Marine Camp between Nukoli’i and Wailua Bay.
It was reported that seeing his father was in danger her 17-year-old son Jeremy swam out to help, but both were taken under by rip currents.
That isn’t what happened, says Linda Kitzmiller, who was on the beach and watched the tragedy unfold.
Out of respect for her late husband and son, Kitzmiller said she wants to “set the record straight” so that people in her hometown would know what really happened.
In a telephone interview from Blairsville-a town about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh-Kitzmiller said she, her 13-year-old daughter, Brittany, her husband and son, were standing in gentle waist-deep water when, to their surprise, a large wave broke and slammed into them.
Linda Kitzmiller said the impact of that wave and that of a string of waves that followed separated her family, resulting in her husband and son being dragged out to sea and drowning. With great effort, Kitzmiller said she and her daughter managed to swim safely to shore.
Kitzmiller contended that one of the first news articles mistakenly suggested her husband and son got into trouble either because “they were being reckless and taking risks, and that is not the way it was.”
The Kitzmillers were on the last day of a seven-day stay on Kaua’i when they decided to go to the beach.
Before 1 p.m. that day, Kitzmiller said her family stood in gentle water off a condominium in the area, with her daughter holding onto the hand of her father.
Kitzmiller said her husband would never knowingly place himself or his family in danger.
Without warning, a series of hard, high waves pounded them, causing the sand on which they stood on to evaporate, Linda Kitzmiller recalled. “We were not surfing. We were just standing there. It had not rained. It was sunny,” she said.
Kalani Vierra, supervisor with the county’s Ocean Safety Bureau, said it was his understanding that at the time the Kitzmillers got in trouble, waves were breaking on both sides of the channel off the beach and the “water sucked out through the channel and created the rip current.”
Her daughter, Kitzmiller said, was overcome by the first wave, but swam underwater with all her strength and swam to shore.
Linda Kitzmiller recalled she and husband went under the water after the first wave hit them. And as they came up for air, Linda Kitzmiller said she could barely catch her breath before the next wave hit.
“My husband and I went down under at least three times, and there was no choice of treading water. The waves kept pounding us,” Linda Kitzmiller said.
With large waves coming “fast and furious,” Linda Kitzmiller said she swam with all her strength to shore and was drained physically when she got back to the beach.
Contrary to what people have told her about how difficult it is to break free of rip currents, she said she managed to do so.
Although exhausted, Kitzmiller she said pleaded and screamed for help from people who were in the water or who were on the beach, to help her husband and son. Kitzmiller said that contrary to witness accounts, she was not pleading with her husband and son to get out of the water, as they were desperately attempting to do so.
Succeeding waves eventually separated her husband and son, Kitzmiller said.
Firefighters and rescue personnel from the Lihu’e fire station arrived at the scene and rescuers used a surfboard and rescue tubes to bring the father and son to shore.
Fire personnel and paramedics performed cardiovascular pulmonary resuscitation on the father and son.
According to reports, the man drowned at the scene, and his son was transported by ambulance to Wilcox Hospital, but was pronounced dead upon arrival.
Kaua’i Fire Department battalion chief Bob Kaden said the official report was based on witness accounts provided by a California wildlife firefighter and her companion who were on the beach when the Kitzmillers got in trouble.
Kaden said the government’s version may conflict with the version provided by Linda Kitzmiller because of different interpretations of what happened in the accident.
Kaden said the California wildlife firefighter felt bad about the drownings, because she felt she could have done something to save the father and son. She was later made aware that she couldn’t have helped because she doesn’t have the lifeguard training to perform rescues in treacherous waters, Kaden said.
“This broke my heart because it could have been prevented with information (literature on dangerous water conditions on Kaua’i), because the mother and daughter saw what happened. It was so unnecessary,” Kaden said.
The drownings left some firefighters stunned, Kaden said.
“Some of the firefighters are strong, but they were pretty shaken by this,” Kaden said. “They realized the tragedy they saw that day.”
Kaden said the drownings might have been prevented had the Kitzmillers been informed about rip currents that frequent the area in front of Wailua.
Kaden also said the Kitzmillers should have been given water safety guides that list dangerous beaches on Kaua’i and that, for safety reasons, they should have been steered to beaches patrolled by county lifeguards.
“It would be a positive step to get decision-makers from resorts to get together and come up with a policy to inform what the real deal (weather and water conditions at beaches) is,” Kaden said.
Vierra said the county -supported water safety beach guide program is alive and well. He said he recently dropped off a bunch of water safety guides at the new Marriott hotel in Po’ipu.
But Linda Kitzmiller said she and her family were never given such literature.
Government signs pointing to dangerous water conditions are posted along the coastline where the drownings occurred.
But Kitzmiller said those types of signs aren’t enough, particularly “if they ( county and state governments) are serious about preventing drownings.”
Before 1997, Kaua’i averaged 11 drownings each year going back 10 years, accounting for the largest number of drownings of any island in Hawai’i during that time period.
But drowning incidents declined markedly after a five-year county-backed water safety plan was implemented in the late 1990.
With more funding available, the county hired more lifeguards, intensified training for lifeguards and bought more safety and rescue equipment.
The plan was supported by Mayor Maryanne Kusaka, the Kaua’i County Council, Kaua’i Water Safety Task Force and interested citizens.
Related to the latest drownings, Kitzmiller said the safety signs that should be posted on the beach should be those that have stern warnings about the dangerous water conditions and “say how many people have drowned there.”
“If the danger was presented in that way through a sign, we would not have gone into the ocean at all that day,” she said. “We would have been just as happy to walk along the coastline.”
Funeral services were held for David and Jeremy Kitzmiller in Blairsville on Jan. 4.
Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:email@example.com