A lot of “what ifs” flashed through the thoughts of Paul Blish as he and his family waited at the Lihue Airport Tuesday for their flight home to the Bay Area.
What if the current had taken him and his daughter so far out, no one could reach them?
What if the cell phone call hadn’t gone through?
And most importantly, “What if Michael wasn’t there.”
“If he wasn’t there, that current would have taken me and our daughter out,” Blish said. “For sure, we would have died.”
Getting over a brush with death was a struggle, Blish said. Even knowing he and his daughter were OK, he was still rattled by what happened on what started as a fun day at a Kauai beach.
“The main point is Michael is a hero, the lifeguards there were super fast, and the most important thing, there should be a sign there,” he said.
Michael Lutwin, a Kalaheo dentist, denied being a hero, but admitted that the danger he and the Blish family faced was real.
“This was by far the most difficult situation I’ve been in,” he said.
What pulled him through, Lutwin said, was a team effort.
“Everybody pitched in,” he said. “I’m just glad everything ended well.”
Blish and his family were looking for a secluded beach, away from all the other tourists, when they settled on Mahaulepu Beach on the South Shore.
They got there early Sunday afternoon and with some borrowed boogie boards, 11-year-old twins Devon and Peyton, joined by dad, began playing in the waves, in perhaps waist-deep water.
Blish took a break and sat on the beach. He saw his children close to shore, then suddenly Devon was being pulled out with the boogie board. No big deal, he thought, until he saw her panicked look.
“I thought I could just walk out and grab her,” he said.
While he did easily catch up to her and the boogie board, he found that despite paddling strong for shore, they were being pulled out.
“I knew we were in trouble,” Blish said.
But they had a guardian angel on duty, Dr. Michael Lutwin of Kalaheo Dental Group.
The former mainland lifeguard and avid surfer was with his family and friends and was watching the scene unfold. He recognized the dangers of the high surf, remnants of a tropical storm, for Kauai’s unsuspecting visitors.
“It was way rougher than Mahaulepu usually is,” he said. “It was not a normal situation down there.”
There were just a few people in the water and the Lutwins were close to leaving.
“Their daughter was wading in, suddenly I saw her start to get out too deep in the channel in front of Gillin’s Beach House. There’s a heavy rip there. I knew what was going to happen next.”
Lutwin told his wife something was wrong, grabbed his surfboard, ran down the beach and jumped in the water, going after the father and daughter being sucked toward the cliffs.
He reached them quickly. The daughter was upset, the father concerned but trying to keep her calm.
First, Lutwin tried to paddle both in against the current, but couldn’t. So he paddled out to deeper water to buy time to think, and decided to take the daughter in with her boogie board, and give his surfboard to the dad and told him to wait until he returned.
“It’s just like a big swimming pool out here,” Lutwin assured Paul Blish.
He added, “Don’t let go of the board, whatever you do.”
The plan worked.
Lutwin, “by miracle,” got the daughter through a shallow reef and back in without a scratch. He didn’t have time to rest. He took another surfboard, grabbed a rescue tube and rushed back in the water.
By now, Paul Blish had been pulled out toward the open ocean, he estimated about 1,000 yards, and was head toward the end of the cliff. He was relieved to see his daughter was safe. Now, he worried about himself.
“I knew if I lost the board I was history,” he said. “I was getting worried about the cliffs.”
“He was in a really bad place in between the cliffs and the outer reef,” Lutwin said.
Meantime, family and friends were doing what they could, too.
Lutwin’s wife, Orie, was on the phone with a dispatcher, relaying what was happening. A social worker, kept the Blish family calm.
Lutwin’s friend, Masa Suzuki, was directing him from the top of the cliffs toward Blish, who was nearly beyond sight, still “hanging on for life” to the board.
“I wouldn’t have found him without Masa pointing me where to go,” Lutwin said.
As they padded to get away from the larger, outer reef break, two lifeguards, Donovan Silva and Alohi Costa, arrived on a Jet Ski from Poipu Beach as a set of big waves rolled in.
One jumped in and grabbed Blish.
“We were running out of time,” Lutwin said.
After being pushed underwater a few times, Blish boarded the Jet Ski and was zipped to safety.
“The lifeguards got to me just in time,” he said. “I don’t know if I could have held on too much longer.”
A lifeguard returned quickly and delivered Lutwin to shore.
Start to finish, the ordeal lasted about 45 minutes.
“It was a very dicey situation,” Lutwin said. “They both could have easily lost their lives. Another 20 minutes and the outcome could have been different.”
He and Blish emphasize there is a need for increased publication about the dangers of the ocean and specifically, signs warning visitors of the dangers of the currents at Mahaleupu. An emergency phone would be nice, too.
“Like it or not, that’s a place more and more visitors are accessing,” Lutwin said.
Both praised the Kauai Lifeguard Association, the quick reaction of the lifeguards, and the Rescue Tube Foundation for having a rescue tube in the area.
“That whole chain of a team working together is really what saved this family,” Lutwin said.
The Blish family treated the Lutwins to dinner Monday night.
Call it fate or coincidence, a new patient came into Lutwin’s dental office this week. He looked familiar to Lutwin — for good reason. It was Silva, the lifeguard on the back of the Jet Ski that came to their aid.
“He had no idea on Sunday who I was or even what my name was, but coincidentally had made an appointment to see me,” Lutwin said. “We both tripped out when we recognized each other.”
Andy Melamed, KLA marketing director and consultant, said KLA’s efforts in building an ocean-minded community “make us all aware of the privileges and responsibilities we have daily, simply when enjoying our ocean.
“Having us look after each other brings us all together in a special way,” he said. “That also happens to save lives.”