Dangerous waters

WAINIHA — The family of Jamie Zimmerman, the 31-year-old doctor and ABC News reporter who drowned earlier this month while attempting to cross the mouth of the Lumahai River where it empties into the sea, are raising funds to build a lifeguard tower at the beach.

Jamie Zimmerman’s mother, Jordan Zimmerman, wrote on her Facebook page last week that she wants to channel her grief into something positive. In this case, helping prevent future deaths from occurring at Lumahai.

“Three days after my only child, the light of my life, died, I visited the place where she took her last breath,” Jordan Zimmerman wrote. “I have been told by a respectable source on the island that had there been a lifeguard tower on that beach, Jamie would have had a chance to see another sunset.”

She added, “I never want another person to suffer the same fate as my child.”

The Remembering Jamie Zimmerman MD IndieGoGo crowdfunding page has so far raised more than $4,000 for a lifeguard tower that county officials say could cost more than $400,000 to build and operate for a year.

Police said Jamie Zimmerman was swept out to sea Oct. 12 from the mouth of Lumahai River. Witnesses called 911 and lifeguards from the Hanalei Pavilion tower responded to the scene within minutes via Jet Ski. Jamie Zimmerman was located unresponsive in the water, about 200 yards east of the river.

She was transported to Wilcox Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead.

In the last decade, there has been one other drowning at the Lumahai River mouth, according to Kauai County spokeswoman Sarah Blane. In December 2006, a 43-year-old Alabama man, Dwayne Trotti, died while attempting to save a teenage boy in distress near the river mouth.

Blane said that while the county has made major strides in ocean safety and prevention in the last decade, there will always be room to do more.

“We welcome the support of Jamie Zimmerman’s family and friends in light of their very tragic loss, and we are in communication with the family on how best to use the funds they raise to support their efforts,” Blane said in an email.

In addition to a one-time cost of about $35,000 for a lifeguard tower, county officials said a starting salary with benefits for a new hire lifeguard to man the tower would cost about $58,000 per year. At five lifeguards per tower, which is the requirement, that number grows to roughly $300,000 for one year of operation.

The tower would also require an additional Ocean Safety Truck ($40,000), Jet Ski and trailer ($22,000) and an ATV ($9,000). Other relatively nominal costs would include a cement slab for the tower, a portable restroom and equipment such as binoculars, a megaphone and uniforms.

Lifeguard towers also require access to running water, which Lumahai currently does not have. County officials do not have an estimated cost of bringing in water, something that would likely require permission from the landowner.

“Of course it’s desirable to have as many lifeguard towers as possible, all manned 24/7, but of course it’s not a reality,” said Jim Jung of the Kauai Lifeguard Association. “Especially at a place like Lumahai where many folks have watched ‘South Pacific’ and they want to see where Mitzi Gaynor washed that man right out of her hair and they want to go to those rocks. But the reality of it is money and infrastructure.”

All told, there are 10 lifeguard towers on Kauai beaches: Kee, Haena, two at Hanalei, Anahola, Kealia, Lydgate, Poipu, Salt Pond and Kekaha.

While there is no lifeguard tower at Lumahai, there are two rescue tubes located at either end of the beach. There are also two signs warning of rip tides and the potential of being swept out to sea. A makeshift warning sign posted by locals reads, “Danger Tourist Beware No Lifeguard.”

Funding plays a role in which beaches get a lifeguard tower, but it is not the only factor. County lifeguard towers are limited to county beach parks, with the exception of the county’s contract to operate a lifeguard tower at the state-owned Kee Beach, which is considered one of the most dangerous on the island, Blane said.

Lumahai Beach is privately owned above the high water mark by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Trust Estate, the state’s largest private landowner.

When determining which beaches should be guarded, Blane said officials also take into account a beach’s popularity. At the top of that list are Poipu Beach Park and Hanalei Bay, both of which are guarded beaches. Other factors would include ocean hazards and distance to other towers or fire stations. For example, Jet Ski operators from the Hanalei towers respond to distress calls at other beaches, such as Lumahai and Anini, according to Blane.

In the days leading up to her drowning, Jamie Zimmerman had been vacationing on Kauai. She planned to fly after her vacation to the Big Island to speak at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. It was her first time in Hawaii.

A New Yorker, Zimmerman was passionate about teaching mindfulness and helping people lead purpose-driven lives. She lectured widely on the intersection between medicine and meditation.

She traveled the globe, helping Congolese refugees in Zambia, volunteering in a cash-strapped hospital in India, and building classrooms in Uganda. She worked with indigenous people on the Amazon in Peru, and served as a United Nations Global Health representative in Haiti.

And she loved the ocean.

“My precious Jamie spent the last days of her life in a ‘paradise found’ that she called ‘the most beautiful place she had ever been,” Jordan Zimmerman wrote on Facebook. “That was quite a statement considering her extensive travels. I am grateful for that.”

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