U.S. Coast Guard investigators are recommending $20,000 in fines for a Kaua’i man for an incident in which two divers drifted from his 25-foot boat off Anahola on Oct. 30, 2003, and could have lost their lives.
However, through his efforts, Peter Bonfiglio, the owner of Kauai Divers, stayed with a panicky diver, a woman visitor from Japan, under overcast skies and choppy waters and brought her close enough to shore where they were rescued by a fishing boat.
The other diver, a woman visitor from Oregon, swam for hours and made it safely back to shore at Flat Rock Reef, which is located about a mile north of Kealia Beach.
Coast Guard investigators are recommending Bonfiglio be fined $15,000 because there was no company employee to watch over two other divers aboard the boat while he went in the water to help the women divers, according to Coast Guard records obtained by The Garden Island.
Coast Guard investigators also are recommending Bonfiglio be fined another $5,000 for not having a random drug-testing program for employees. Bonfiglio was the only company employee on board the 25-foot Makuamana on the day of the accident.
The episode happened on a day that began with optimism and a sense of adventure, and ended in near tragedy. Luck and a determination by all to survive saved the day, Bonfiglio later said.
The two women divers swam for their lives under overcast skies and in choppy water as Bonfiglio tried to bring calm.
The two male divers left aboard the boat motored over rough waters, searching for the three divers. Eventually, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue craft from Nawiliwili Harbor found the boat, and escorted the men back to the Waika’ea Canal in Kapa’a.
In the end, Bonfiglio was lionized by some for his heroism, but berated by others for taking divers out in questionable diving conditions.
Bonfiglio could not be reached for comment last week, in part because there is no telephone listing for him or his business.
A Coast Guard official in Honolulu said a notice on the pending fines has been sent to him, and that if Bonfiglio appeals the fines, a Coast Guard representative from Washington, D.C. will come to Kaua’i to conduct a hearing.
At the hearing, mitigating circumstances can be presented that could drive down the fine, the official said.
Following a two-year investigation, Coast Guard officials, in a formal report, noted that Bonfiglio did not have the required license to run his commercial operation.
During the chartered dive, the investigators said Bonfiglio left two men, a man from Germany and a man from California, unattended in his boat while he tried to help the women divers.
There was no captain or crew on board when Bonfiglio, who acted as a master of the boat, initiated the rescue of the two women divers, the report said.
Bonfiglio contended all four divers were on a non-paid dive.
But the investigators noted that Bonfiglio headed a commercial operation, because he had been operating since September 2003, and had advertised in The garden Island that his company had been in business since February 2003.
Handouts also were given to other dive businesses “to sell his dive tours and charters,” according to the Coast Guard report obtained by The Garden Island.
The investigators said Bonfiglio had been “taking passengers out for hire” since September 2003.
Coast Guard investigators also said it was their belief that Bonfiglio felt he needed some type of approval from the Coast Guard to operate his dive-boat company, because he knew that he needed a license to operate a boat that would carry less than six passengers.
Bonfiglio submitted a “lower-level license evaluation” to officials at the Coast Guard Regional Exam Center in Honolulu, investigators said.
However, his check for the evaluation was rejected for insufficient funds, the Coast Guard report noted.
In addition to owning and operating a commercial business, Bonfiglio, as a marine employer, was obligated to implement and maintain a drug-testing program as required by law, Coast Guard investigators said.
There exists no evidence that Bonfiglio had a drug and alcohol program up until Oct. 19, 2003, when “Kauai Divers was ready for business,” investigators said in their report.
Bonfiglio didn’t implement such a program until Jan. 28, 2004, after being made aware of the requirement, investigators said.
Bonfiglio said, however, that drug tests for his three employees turned out negative.
Bonfiglio currently is asking permission from officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to change the numbers on his boat so that he can run commercial operations from the Waika’ea Canal launch ramp.
Bonfiglio wants to conduct scuba-diving, snorkeling, whale-watching and trolling tours from his boat on the east side of Kaua’i, as a way to remain competitive.
Before the divers began their trip on the morning of Oct. 30, 2003, Bonfiglio said he explained to them that he had no plans to dive, because ocean conditions seemed unsafe.
But the divers wanted to go anyway, Bonfiglio said.
The boat left the Kapa’a shoreline at 10:30 a.m. that day, motored to Kahala Point, and dropped anchor in a depth of 50 feet.
Bonfiglio told divers about the emergency equipment aboard the boat.
Bonfiglio didn’t dive in with them because all the divers told him they had diving experience.
The two men climbed back into the boat after realizing the current was too strong, Bonfiglio said.
The women divers remained in the water, with the diver from Oregon showing confidence that she could handle the ocean conditions, Bonfiglio recalled in a past interview with The Garden Island.
The Japanese woman, however, panicked, as her mask fell off and her regulator came out of her mouth, he recalled.
When the current pulled her 25 feet away from the boat, Bonfiglio said he had to take action.
He said he was cognizant of Coast Guard rules requiring the dive captain or a “licensed master” remain on board during commercial dives.
But his was not a commercial dive, and he wasn’t going to let a rule get in the way of “saving someone’s life,” Bonfiglio said earlier.
Donning his gear, Bonfiglio said he jumped overboard, swam to her, and helped her put her mask and regulator back on.
The currents pulled Bonfiglio and the Japanese woman away from the other diver, whom Bonfiglio said he lost sight of.
The men aboard the boat went looking for the women and Bonfiglio, and although Bonfiglio and the Japanese diver blew whistles and yelled and screamed, those aboard the craft couldn’t see them.
To prevent themselves from drifting further out to sea, the couple swam south. Bonfiglio put his buoyancy compensator under the woman diver, serving as a mattress that helped keep her afloat for hours before their rescue at 4:30 p.m. that day, Bonfiglio said.
At one point, Bonfiglio and the Japanese woman had swum to an area of the shore where they were in 25 feet of water, and were spotted by folks in a fishing vessel.
He and the women were then brought back to Waika’ea Canal in Kapa’a.
The Oregon diver made it to shore on her own, and the two men were escorted back to shoreline by the Coast Guard craft.
- Lester Chang, staff writer, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or email@example.com