Visitor rescues unidentified woman at Lawa‘i beach

Long Beach resident Matt Barnikel was in the right place at the right time Thursday afternoon when an unidentified woman began struggling in the water across from the Lawai Beach Resort in Koloa.

While it only took a few minutes to save her life, Barnikel said the experience will not soon be forgotten.

On vacation visiting his mom, Barbara, the two had set out for a leisurely day at the beach earlier that morning. And after experiencing strong currents at Ke‘e Beach on the North Shore and Po‘ipu to the south over the past week, they were in search of calm waters for snorkeling.

Barnikel, 22, is trained in CPR and water safety from two years on his high school surf team. He said he had joked with his mom about having to use those skills during his trip, but neither took the comment seriously.

The surf was calm when they arrived — ideal for paddling and taking pictures, he said. It was not until two hours later that the wind and waves started to pick up.

“All of a sudden, in about 15 minutes it got pretty crazy,” Barnikel recalled yesterday.

He was roughly 500 feet from the shore snorkeling when he heard a woman yell. Barnikel said she was about 50 yards inland from him right in the middle of the shore break. He didn’t think much at first, but then she yelled again. Barnikel asked if she was OK, and the woman said no.

“I took off after her,” he said. “I lost my snorkel mask and was paddling with it in my teeth like a dog with a bone.”

The woman’s husband, who was about 15 feet to his left, had not heard the cry but noticed Barnikel swimming frantically. Barnikel said he motioned to the man and kept on going.

In the 10 to 20 seconds it took him to get to the woman, she had gone underwater.

“I just grabbed her hair with my hand and yanked her up,” he said. Then he grasped her arm, and by that point the husband had arrived to help.

The woman, in her mid-30s, was conscious, Barnikel said, but “kind of hysterical,” so it took a while for the two men to pull her to shore.

Meanwhile, Barbara Barnikel had not noticed anything unusual from the shore. She was alarmed to hear that her son had just saved a life, especially since she had chatted with the woman earlier as they both battled the waves.

“It’s frightening how quiet and how quick it happens,” said the Lihu‘e resident. “It makes you respect the water.”

On dry land, the woman spit up water and spent a few minutes recovering. The husband thanked Barnikel and the couple took off in their car, apparently shaken up over the incident, without leaving their names.

On the experience, Matt Barnikel said he looks at it as good karma and is glad to have made a difference during his stay.

“It was very humbling and it made me feel good to save a life,” he said.

According to Kaua‘i County Public Information Officer Mary Daubert, the fire department responded to a call about a female swimmer in distress at 3 p.m. Thursday between the Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club and Po‘ipu Beach Park, east of the incident described by Barnikel. In that case, the swimmer had made it to shore by the time crews arrived at the scene.

• Blake Jones, business writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com.

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