Man dies after shark attack

The Maui News
Thursday, April 08, 2004


KAHANA - A shark inflicted a massive wound to the upper right leg of a 57-year-old Kahana man around 7 a.m. Wednesday as he was paddling his surfboard to catch waves at the popular surf spot known as "S-Turns."

Despite efforts of fellow surfers and paramedics to save him, Willis McInnis died at the scene, becoming the first confirmed shark attack fatality in Hawaii in nearly 12 years.

State officials and Maui County lifeguards posted shark warning signs and closed a 2-mile stretch of beach from Honokowai Park to Little Makaha near Napili Bay. Lifeguards on personal watercraft patrolled the ocean Wednesday but didn't see any sharks, said Archie Kalepa, Maui County ocean safety supervisor.

He said lifeguards helped state conservation enforcement officers put up warning signs after the fatal attack.

Tina Cooper, 47, of Napili said she, McInnis and Rodger Coombs are usually the "early birds" at the surf spot.

"We surf together early in the morning," she said.

Cooper said McInnis went in the water first and had caught at least two waves as she and Coombs paddled out to join him.

"We were watching him," she said. "I caught one wave, got off a wave and turned around to paddle back out."

Cooper said she thought she heard McInnis making "joyful noises" as he would after riding a wave.

"That was common," she said. "He was a real happy guy."

Cooper said she quickly realized he was crying for help.

"Rodger and I paddled towards him," she said. "We just saw his bloody leg."

Coombs, a 60-year-old retiree from Lahaina, said he had been paddling out in a channel to waves that were waist-to-shoulder-high when he saw a friend he knew as "Will" was in distress.

"I heard him yelling, 'Help! Help me!' " said Coombs. He estimated he was about 100 yards away from the victim, who was lying on top of his 10-foot surfboard about 200 to 300 yards offshore in water 10 to 15 feet deep.

Coombs paddled over to him and asked, "Will, what's wrong?"

"He didn't answer me," he said.

But Coombs said he could see a "big chunk had been taken out of the right back thigh . . . just below the buttocks." He also could see McInnis was losing massive amounts of blood.

Police said McInnis suffered severe lacerations to his upper right thigh and midcalf. The wound measured 12 to 14 inches long.

Coombs said he didn't see the shark and didn't know its size or species. He said he got off his board and began pushing McInnis in to shore while Cooper paddled in to use her cell phone to call for help.

He said McInnis was approximately 6 feet tall and weighed about 175 pounds.

"He said, 'My leg is toast,' " Coombs recalled. But he said he kept trying to give the man encouragement as it took another 10 to 15 minutes to get him in to shore.

Coombs said he told McInnis: "We're going to make it. . . . Just stay with me. . . . We're almost there."

He said McInnis was conscious most of the way to shore, although he clearly was in, or going into, shock.

"My only thought was to get him in to shore and get him help," Coombs said.

He said the ordeal left him exhausted.

"I did what I think anybody would have done," he said. "My whole focus was to try to get him in to shore to get him help."

Bystanders and friends helped bring McInnis to shore and give him medical treatment.

One of McInnis' friends, Curtis Kaiwi, said he jumped into the water and got cut by rocks to help two surfers pull the victim to shore.

Kaiwi, 45, of Honokowai said it was hard to keep McInnis' body on the board and push him to shore.

He said McInnis' cut was "just meat. No blood."

"Blood was in the water around us," he said.

When the group brought McInnis to shore, a group of bystanders was waiting to help.

One was Jeffrey Woznicki, a fire captain vacationing from Milwaukee. He said McInnis was unconscious, "still breathing, but very pale."

Woznicki, 46, said he performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but it didn't seem to work.

"You got to have blood" pressure for CPR to work, he said. "You try anyway.

"There was a lot of circles of blood out there," he said.

Paramedics arrived shortly after McInnis had been taken to shore, Coombs said.

Coombs said he knew McInnis only as a fellow surfer.

"He was a nice guy to talk to, very friendly, very outgoing," he said.

Coombs said the shark attack, while tragic, won't deter him from continuing to surf.

"I'm not going surfing at S-Turns right away," he said, "but I'll go back and go surfing again. . . . It will be a few days before I go in the water again.

"Sharks live in the ocean," he said. "It's just really unfortunate that that happened. . . . I'm sorry I wasn't quick enough."

McInnis' friends watching from shore caught a glimpse of what may have been the attack.

Fellow surf club member, Charlie Nakagawa, said he was across the street from the park preparing for work.

"I saw Will take off on a wave. He fell back on the wave, when I saw splashes. Big splashes," Nakagawa said.

"Oh wow," Nakagawa said to himself, thinking it could have been a shark attack.

Nearby, Woznicki's 45-year-old wife, Cassandra, was on a Noelani Condominium Resort balcony overlooking the waters off Pohaku Park. She was videotaping McInnis surfing.

She remembered saying: "He's really great." She put her camera down to eat her cereal and noticed something looked funny.

"It looked like he was laying down on his board," she said.

Woznicki said she then heard a surfer asking people onshore to "call 911."

"I didn't see a shark," she said. But "there was a lot of blood in the water."

Police received a call at 7:08 a.m. about a surfer in distress about 300 yards in front of the Noelani condominium, said Capt. Charles Hirata, commander of the Lahaina Patrol District.

Hirata said no one reported seeing the shark, although a witness described "seeing a flash after the shark attacked." He said the water was murky with 4-foot surf at the time of the attack.

Kalepa said shark sightings were reported in the area a couple of years ago, but no attacks have occurred at the surf spot.

"It's really not known for having sharks," Kalepa said.

He said the beach would be closed for 24 hours for one mile in either direction of the shark attack site, in keeping with standard procedures after such incidents.

Randy Honebrink, spokesman for the Shark Task Force of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said there are an average of about four shark attacks off the Hawaiian Islands every year. Tiger sharks are the most common in Hawaii, he said.

"They do feed an awful lot at things at the surface," Honebrink said. "They have a nonspecific diet. They'll eat just about anything."

It was not immediately known how large the shark involved in the attack was, but wildlife authorities will try to estimate that by the bite marks, which were estimated to be as long as 14 inches across.

"It has to be a fairly good size shark to do that damage," Honebrink said.

Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., a Native Hawaiian member of the Hawaii state Shark Task Force, went out to Pohaku Park to survey what had happened.

Maxwell, who headed the successful effort to not have sharks killed said: "I'm happy they are not going to kill the shark."

Maxwell said the water looked murky and that was probably what contributed to the attack.

He said the shark will bite once if it realizes it was not a seal or turtle, which is what it usually preys on. In this case, the victim was bitten once.

"When the water is murky like this, that's when these animals come out," Maxwell said.

There were four shark attacks reported in Hawaii in 2003, including an Oct. 31 incident off the north shore of Kauai in which then 13-year-old surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm.

The last confirmed shark attack death in Hawaii was in 1992 when 18-year-old surfer Aaron Romento of Pearl City was attacked off Oahu.

On Nov. 26, 1991, Martha Joy Morrell, 41, was killed by what was reported to be a 15-foot shark while she was swimming with a friend in the ocean fronting her Olowalu home.

Staff Writer Lila Fujimoto and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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