Drownings spur ocean safety awareness

Ocean safety is an issue often in the back of the minds of Kaua‘i residents and visitors, but it comes to the forefront when tragedies force those surrounded by the Pacific Ocean to recognize the dangers it presents and the respect it must be given.

With last week’s news of four visitors drowning in two days at Queen’s Bath in Princeville, the secluded Hanakapi‘ai Beach on the North Shore and Kaua‘i Sands in Kapa‘a, locals are discouraging tourists from visiting these beautiful but at times perilous unguarded attractions.

“Don’t recommend going there. There are too many injuries and deaths,” water safety advocate Dr. Monty Downs said yesterday. “That’s the answer we should be giving.”

Queen’s Bath, in particular, has been identified as a hazardous location. The natural pool carved into a lava shelf along a rocky shoreline is most often enjoyed in the summer when the North Shore seas are calmer as winter swells make it treacherous.

On Oct. 12, sisters-in-law Tonya Cataldo, 39, of Parker, Colo., and Heather Westphal, 33, of Washington, D.C., were walking along a ledge there when a large wave swept them out to sea, according to county officials.

Downs and two tourism industry employees identified “The Ultimate Kaua‘i Guidebook” as the primary source of visitors’ awareness of and desire to go to Queen’s Bath. The book features a photograph of people enjoying the clear blue pool in calm conditions while offering a warning.

A North Shore concierge, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not have her employer’s permission, said guidebooks don’t do enough to educate tourists about seasonal ocean conditions and dangerous locations. She said she often refuses to tell guests how to find the semi-remote Queen’s Bath.

“We just tell them the truth,” she said, noting co-workers who have also arrived at the personal decision to not give directions to Queen’s Bath. “I say ‘I’m not going to tell you where it is because it’s too dangerous, there are too many drownings.’ It’s sad seeing everybody dying.”

Also on Oct. 12, an unresponsive swimmer was brought to shore in front of the Lae Nani, a Kapa‘a condominium. Attempts to perform CPR on Hiroaki Kinjo, 74, from Japan were unsuccessful, according to county officials.

Downs said beachfront hotels and condominiums should work together to fund a pool of ocean safety officers, and encouraged the companies to have a defibrillator on hand to help maximize ocean safety.

In a letter to the editor yesterday, Ken Wayne of San Mateo, Calif., discusses his experience as an eyewitness to the Oct. 13 drowning at Hanakapi‘ai of 25-year-old Klaudiusz Piotr Dragun of Poland. He suggests installing an emergency call box near the beach so witnesses could quickly reach authorities instead of hiking two miles to reach Ke‘e Beach which still has spotty cellular phone reception.

Kekaha community leader Jose Bulatao said preventing and discouraging visitors from ever heading to the island’s most dangerous spots would stop the problem at its source.

“If people go to these unattended beaches and don’t know what the currents are like, they could step into doom and disaster because they don’t know the territory,” he said yesterday. “We need to be more responsible about the way that we advertise the beautiful beaches we have on Kaua‘i, because they’re not only beautiful but hazardous as well.”

Kaua‘i County Council Chair Jay Furfaro said yesterday that he hopes to get interested parties, such as the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, at the table in coming weeks to discuss possible limitations to the access to Queen’s Bath.

The natural pool is reached by hiking down a muddy trail from a parking lot in Princeville, then traversing the rocky shoreline.

“The next move is to get whole testimony from all parties concerned, then get it into a council agenda, and maybe it turns out to be a seasonal closure,” Furfaro said, noting there are already warning signs in the county-run parking area.

Meanwhile, spokespersons for the employers of Cataldo and Westphal this week made statements regarding the tragic losses. Cataldo was a registrar for Clear Sky Elementary School in Castle Rock, Colo., where her two young children are students.

“Schools are small communities and are like families. A loss like this is extremely difficult,” said Douglas County (Colo.) School District Director of Communications Whei Wong in an e-mail. “News of her death hit the school community very hard. … Our thoughts go out to Mrs. Cataldo’s family, colleagues and friends.”

Westphal had been serving as manager of Member Marketing for the Fairfax, Va.-based International Association of Fire Chiefs, according to Communications Director Edie Clark.

“All of us in the IAFC community are devastated by this news,” said Mark Light, executive director of the IAFC, in a press release. “She represented the best in service and commitment to serve the IAFC and the international fire service community.”

Yesterday, the Penn Athletic Club of Philadelphia dedicated its race at the 41st Annual Head of the Charles in Boston, Mass., to Westphal.

“Heather will be with us every step of the way, with her initials emblazoned on the side of the stern section of our racing shell,” said 2004 Olympic Champion and IAFC member Jason Read in a Friday press release.

∫ Michael Levine, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or via e-mail at mlevine@kauaipubco.com

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