Search called off for Utah man swept away off Kahakuloa

The search for a Utah man, who was swept into the ocean off Olivine Pools near Kahakuloa on Monday, ended Wednesday amid a call for increasing awareness to the deadly dangers of the visitor attraction found in guidebooks.

The Maui Fire Department and U.S. Coast Guard Station Maui and Sector Honolulu called off the search for the 34-year-old Utah man at 6 p.m. Wednesday after searching the coastline and ocean off Olivine Pools since Monday afternoon.

“The Maui Fire Department extends its heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the victim,” Fire Services Chief Ed Taomoto said Wednesday night.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the family, friends and loved ones affected,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Will Cusic of Coast Guard Sector Honolulu. “Suspending a search is a difficult decision to make, especially when we aren’t able to bring closure to the family.”

On Monday afternoon, a wave struck the lava shelf and knocked down two women and washed the man into the ocean. An earlier wave knocked a 23-year-old Connecticut man into the roiling sea.

The Connecticut man was plucked from the sea by the Fire Department’s Air One helicopter and medevaced to Maui Memorial Medical Center in stable condition on Monday. The two women, a 19-year-old from Mexico and a 20-year-old from Austria, were treated at the scene for minor abrasions and released, Taomoto said.

David Russo, a former Maui Meadows resident currently living in Los Angeles, said Wednesday that he helped carry one of the women, who was bloodied and bruised, from the lava shelf back up the hill. He said he had been warning people, including the group that got in trouble, not to go down to the shelf with pools because of the danger.

“The first thing I heard was screaming . . . Call 911,” he said.

Russo found the women on the rocks “bloodied and bruised.” They told him that two of their companions were in the ocean.

The Connecticut man “was in the cove in the wash, waving and yelling,” Russo said.

Russo and others signaled him to go out away from the shoreline and to swim toward Kahakuloa. He explained that wave and current action “in that washing machine” will push swimmers up against the rocks or underwater.

The man, who was bleeding, swam a couple hundred yards against the current to safer ocean and threaded water in 10 to 20 foot swells before being rescued by firefighters, he said.

“He saved his own life. He kept his head,” said Russo. “I never saw a kid swim against the current and he did.”

“There are times you have to earn your life back . . . and you have to get to shore,” he said.

The other man, however, was no where to be seen, Russo said.

The surviving man was likely the last to see the Utah man. He saw the man fall into the water and come up once, then go under again. “That was the last time he saw him,” Russo recalled the Connecticut visitor saying.

It all happened in the first couple of minutes.

“He was yelling and then he went under,” Russo said he was told. “He saw the back of his head, and he went down.”

More needs to be done to warn people about this dangerous spot, Russo said.

Checking news reports, a 41-year-old California man and his 14-year-old daughter were swept into the sea at Olivine Pools in April 2004. The girl survived but her father drowned.

In November 2006, two visitors were swept into the ocean at Olivine Pools and drowned.

Russo was on the island for his son’s wedding and took the trip to the rugged northwest side of the island to take some photos.

He said the azure pools “are very beautiful, but dangerous,” especially in the winter with the northwest swells that surfers wait for. Summer conditions are safer.

There could be seven calm sets “and then the killers” wash over the lava shelf. There is a point that people walk out to that can be deadly, he said.

While warning at least five groups to turn around and not go down to the pools, Russo noted that they all learned about Olivine Pools from guide books. Other visitors were headed to the pools after the accident, and he worried about others who may be unaware of the dangers.

He did not see warning signs on the path to the pools, which is on state land. Attempts to reach state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials for comment Wednesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

Russo said the group that got in trouble actually included seven people. Taomoto said they all met at the hostel in Wailuku where they were staying.

On Wednesday, the Fire Department used a rescue boat, the Air One helicopter and ground crews. The Coast Guard aided the ground search and had a cutter and a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter patrolling the offshore waters.

The Coast Guard said Wednesday night that its search covered  539 square miles.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.