LIHUE — It took almost a full day and two 911 calls for county officials to send a rescue helicopter en route to Kalalau Beach Tuesday morning after a helicopter tour company pilot alerted officials of a distress signal written in the sand Monday afternoon, said Lihue Airport tower officials.
Bryan H. Bishop, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization union representative with the Traffic Control Tower at Lihue Airport, said a pilot with Mauna Loa Helicopters alerted tower officials just after 5 p.m. Monday of an “SOS” signal written in the sand on Kalalau Beach.
Tower officials then alerted the county and relayed the information given to them from the tour company pilot.
“The pilot described them as not appearing to be in distress,” Bishop said.
Mauna Loa Helicopters pilot Martin McGinley was one of three pilots at the time who saw the SOS on Monday. After surveying the area, McGinley made the call to the tower.
“There was a group of people and they were all in the surf,” McGinley said. “They weren’t waving frantically that I could see or that any of the other guys could see.”
Sarah Blane, Kauai County spokeswoman, said Kauai Fire Department received a call from dispatch about 5:45 p.m.
“Rescue 3 then made direct contact with personnel from the helicopter company, who relayed that they had flown over the area to search for anyone in distress and did not see any individual nearby who appeared to be in need of assistance,” Blane said. “After receiving additional information, the situation did not appear to require immediate rescue via airlift.”
The next morning, Bishop said a Blue Hawaii tour helicopter spotted the same distress signal on the beach and alerted tower officials who again called county dispatch.
“I advised them to check it out because it was going on for so long,” Bishop said. “That was about 16 or so hours between the two calls.”
This time, the county sent a chopper.
“Rescue 3 aboard Air 1 was en route to Kalalau beach to make another check of the area,” Blane said. “At that point, they were notified by the US Coast Guard that they were conducting training nearby and would respond. Rescue 3 was called off at that point.”
The Coast Guard rescued a woman and a man, who had an injured foot. It’s unknown how the man sustained his injuries.
They were then taken to Lihue Airport where they met with EMS officials. They were in stable condition, according to reports.
Mason Chock, Kauai County councilman and former firefighter, said “SOS” is a typical response on the Na Pali Coast.
“We see that kind of distress on the coast,” Chock said.
Although the information relayed to the county said that there were no signs of distress, Bishop — who has worked at the tower for 16 years — argues the signal on the beach should have been sufficient evidence for a county rescue.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this,” he said. “You get an SOS and that’s an international distress call. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t respond under that by itself.”