HONOLULU (KHON2) — A 20-year-old Idaho man almost drowned after being swept out at a dangerous spot on Oahu’s North Shore on Saturday, Jan. 15. 

The incident happened about 40 minutes after lifeguard towers closed for the day at Ke Iki Beach. The beach is considered to have one of the most dangerous shore breaks in the state, and many rescues have taken place there. 

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On Saturday, a fast-building swell caught the attention of many visitors and locals alike. Two visitors were admiring the huge waves when they saw people running toward the rocks at Ke Iki around 6:10 p.m. on Saturday.  

“We heard a scream and [the guy in the water] put his hand up, and that’s when we knew something was really wrong,” explained Madeline Lieb, a visitor from Alaska. “It was really scary to watch, and the waves were so big that night.” 

Lieb was with her mother-in-law, Marilyn Gottlieb, who said people nearby immediately called 911. Two Honolulu Ocean Safety lieutenants were on mobile patrol at the time the 911 calls came in for a swimmer in distress.  

“When I arrived on scene, the fire department was there and I noticed a swimmer at that time outside [the rocks] with two surfers hanging on to him,” explained Honolulu Ocean Safety Lt. Kyle Foyle.  

Two experienced surfers were keeping the man on their boards and away from the shore break. Lt. Foyle jumped in with his rescue tube and fins.   

“Bringing him into the shore break at that time, especially as it’s getting dark, is very challenging for me and for him as far as injuries go,” Lt. Foyle explained. 

Thankfully, the other lieutenant on duty was a rescue craft operator, and he launched a ski from Haleiwa. Both Lt. Foyle and Lt. Jesse King brought the man to Waimea Bay where he was treated by Honolulu EMS.  

“We took him to Waimea because Waimea had a little less shore break that day, so it was easier to get an exhausted patient like that got him to shore, and EMS checked him out for secondary drowning and he was able to walk out on his own,” Lt. Foyle said. 

“He [the patient] told me pretty much he was close to death, and he saw his life flashing in front of his eyes, he thought of his little brother, and he said he was accepting death.”

Honolulu Ocean Safety Lt. Kyle Foyle

He said it could have been a different story if the two experienced surfers were not there.

“If they weren’t able to get him and secure him outside of the shore break, I would think probably the worst would have happened at that point, so the thanks go to them for actually risking their lives to get him and bring him outside the shore break,” Lt. Foyle added.  

The visitors who witnessed the rescue were surprised lifeguards were not stationed at beaches while the sun was still up. 

“I feel like that would be an important thing to have the lifeguards here until sunset,” Lieb said. “Also, because there are a lot of tourists who want to come and watch the sun set they don’t quite know what they’re dealing with when going in the water.” 

According to ocean safety, there have been 142 calls made to 911 when towers were closed since the extended hours program launched in July 2021.  

Ocean Safety Chief John Titchen said additional mobile coverage will be coming soon. 

“The next phase would involve those rescue operators with rescue jet ski teams that we deploy all around the island,” Chief Titchen said.  

The extended hours program was intended to roll out to cover all beaches and have guards at towers, but insufficient staffing and budgeting shortfalls have played a role. Chief Titchen said Saturday’s rescue proves extended hours and mobile response works.  

“We’re eventually going to get to a point where some towers will be open longer hours, that’s the goal to communicate to the community, that we have these lifeguarded beaches, where they can go where they can bring their families, and where they can go knowing there is a guard watching people in the water,” Chief Titchen explained. “When does that happen? Over the next, you know, months and even years as we invest in this.”  

He said there are many steps involved involving working with the union and the city’s Department of Human Resources, “there are a number of steps that we can’t just overnight do.”

“I think this rescue is a perfect testament to what our vision has been all along, which is to improve our mobile coverage first, for longer hours during the day, that gets us to those calls that do come in like this one,” Titchen said.  

Although Ke Iki is not a guarded beach, lifeguards patrol the area via ATV every 10 to 15 minutes. The closest tower is about a half-mile away at Rock Pile. Foyle said Ke Iki is for experienced watermen and women only.

“We can’t see it from our lifeguard tower, so we have to do patrol and Ke Iki is unlike Ehukai or Waimea where usually the white water pushes you into shore. Here it kind of recycles you, it’s like a washing machine; so, you’ll take a set on the head and you think you got pushed in and you’ll pop up and be in the same spot and take another wave on the head. I’ve even seen professionals get worked out here, it’s not beginner-friendly, it’s not for novices, it’s expert level to be anywhere near this shore break.” 

Honolulu Ocean Safety Lt. Kyle Foyle

With another extra-large swell expected to arrive this weekend, ocean safety is encouraging people to go to guarded beaches, stay off the wet sand and rocks, stay behind caution tape and ask lifeguard questions.  

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“The main thing is talk to us. If you see a lifeguard, especially patrolling or by a tower, or don’t go to beaches without a lifeguard like Ke Iki doesn’t have a tower here so you could easily come down, it looks flat, I’m going to jump in the water and then there’s a 12-foot set. So, it’s just education, and do a little research, the internet is a wonderful thing you can see where lifeguard towers are, what’s a safe beach to go to and get more education,” Foyle said. “You’re playing with your life on this one and we’d like to see a little more education.”