Thankful to be alive

Harold Sperazza and Melanie Lyte love adventures.

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, climbing, skydiving, you name it, they’ve probably tried it.

But getting swept out to sea while snorkeling at Larsen’s Beach, and nearly drowning, was an adventure they don’t want to try again.

“I never thought in a million years I could be caught out in the ocean like that,” Lyte said.

The fit 51-year-old swam, treaded water, did whatever it took to stay afloat for nearly two hours.

“I kept thinking somebody was going to see me,” she said. “I kept looking. Somebody had to have called 911.”

Her husband couldn’t even see her, and thought she had drowned. He was within a minute of going under for good, himself.

“I was almost to the point, all right, just give up,” the 58-year-old Sperazza said. “Quite frankly, I was drowning.”

That’s when Tommy Passarella, like an angel from the sky, swam up with a yellow rescue tube.

“All of the sudden, out of nowhere, is this guy. He was just there,” Sperazza said. “The guy saved my life. I’m not melodramatic about these kinds of things. This guy absolutely saved my life.”

Firefighters would soon arrive and save Lyte.

The couple treated Passarella to dinner Sunday night in Hanalei. Sperazza believes, without a doubt, he wouldn’t be here today if not for Passarella.

“I’m just glad to be alive to tell the story,” he said.

The undertow

The water seemed calm enough on that Thursday mid-morning when Sperazza and Lyte arrived at Larsen’s Beach to try some snorkeling. They prefer off-the-beaten-path, isolated places and found it, with just a few others there.

The couple from Upstate New York was visiting Kauai for the first time and had big plans. This was the easy day, about midway in the two-week vacation. Kayaking the Napali Coast, hiking Waimea Canyon, skydiving and rappelling were also on their agenda.

Bold is a good word to describe them.

“We’re very comfortable in those circumstances,” Sperazza said.

Both donned their fins, mask and snorkel and headed out. They planned to just check out the coral reef. They were enjoying the underwater sights, relaxed, when things changed.

“The next thing you know, we just got grabbed by the undertow,” he said. “We were no longer snorkeling. We were fighting for our lives.”

Sperazza, who considers himself a decent swimmer, began to panic and tried to grab the reef. But the current was strong enough to suck them farther out and separate them, pulling Lyte, a strong swimmer, away.

That’s when Sperazza began shouting for help. Large waves rolled in and pushed him around

“It went from a quiet beach to a heavy surf real quickly,” he said.

He struggled and fought to stay afloat for what seemed like 30 to 45 minutes. Out of strength, exhausted, he believed he was going to die.

Then, Passarella was just there. He told Sperazza to grab one end of the flotation tube and he held the other.

“Once I got a hold of that thing, I was able to calm down,” he said.

His fight for survival wasn’t over.

They struggled for another half hour to reach the reef, suffering cuts, and finally, land.

Sperazza turned and looked for his wife. Far out, he saw only high surf. She was nowhere.

“Do you see my wife?” he kept asking.

The rescue

Lyte is a fitness fanatic. She works out almost daily and runs. It was her physical and mental strength that kept her alive as she floated alone.

She could see her husband being saved, but didn’t know if anyone could see her, she had been pulled so far out. She tried to get back toward shore. She tied to grab and hold coral, but waves smashed her out.

“I was swimming like hell,” she said.

But she could see the same markings underwater, no matter how hard she stroked and kicked.

“I realized I wasn’t moving,” Lyte said. “If I went on my back and swam, I felt like I was making progress, but I wasn’t.”

So she treaded water, paddled and waited for the help she was sure had to be on the way. She told herself to stay calm, that she could do this. The new grandmother was determined to live.

“It’s funny, the things that go through your head. I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to take risks like this anymore.’”

She had been out there nearly an hour, she said, when she saw men with boards charging down the path above the beach. Three county firefighters paddled to her, but because the surf was so rough, they couldn’t take her back in. An Air 1 helicopter with R3 personnel arrived. And in minutes, she was back on the beach with her husband.

Two hours after their peaceful morning started at Larsen’s Beach, they held each other tight, thankful.

“I was very thankful to be alive,” Lyte said. “I just felt the joy of being alive.”

Spezarra said he thought his wife had been swept out and drowned. It was, he said, an awful feeling.

“I had about 20 minutes to think about what my life going to be without my wife,” he said. “It was a terrible experience for a long time.”

The experience made Lyte realize life is fleeting and can be taken away — quickly.

“I think I’ll appreciate being alive and hopefully I can hold on to that feeling,” she said.

The lesson

Both said they learned their lesson about the dangers of the ocean. They urge others to be careful on Kauai.

“It was really unfortunate, because of us not being careful, all of this had to happen,” Lyte said.

“We were bold, a lot bold, maybe a little arrogant, coming down here,” Sperazza said. “This ocean is very dangerous if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”

Sperazza thought he did. He grew up in Rhode Island and swam often in the ocean. It didn’t prepare him for the current that nearly killed him.

“Waves in Rhode Islands are nothing like this,” he said.

In their many adventures, Sperazza and Lyte have overcome challenging spots. This, however, was beyond an adventure.

“Nothing quite as near death as this was,” Lyte said.

Sperazza called Passarella’s effort’s heroic.

“It’s amazing to me somebody would risk their life like that,” he said. “We owe our lives to a stranger and that fire department. If Tommy had not come out there, I definitely was not going to make it.”

Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association, was glad to hear of the rescues and that the rescue tube was there.

There are about 240 rescue tubes posted on beaches around Kauai. Since the first one was installed about seven years ago, more than 120 rescue tube saves have been reported, and it is estimated that more than 20 drownings may have been prevented.

“It’s rewarding when they do come in handy,” he said Monday. “I’m sure there would have been 15 to 20 people who would have drowned if we didn’t have these things.”

The couple, by the way, kept their date for a Napali Coast kayaking trip the next day. Lyte had doubts about it, but Sperazza calmed her fears.

“We’re going to do this,” he said.

They did.

And it turned out to be another great adventure, one they will happily remember.


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