WENDY OSHER / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Allen Reynolds, a 14-year employee at the Polo Beach Club condominium, was among those who jumped into the water yesterday at Polo Beach, Maui, to help swimmers in distress. CLICK FOR LARGE
Tourist dies trying to save others on Maui
The drowning spurs warnings on riptides
Riptides off Polo Beach are notorious among South Maui residents, who offered warnings born of experience yesterday after a visitor from Oregon drowned while trying to save others in distress.
Maui police said Kuon Phou, 29, died during the incident Tuesday afternoon, when seas were unusually choppy under brisk winds. At least three other swimmers made it to shore safely with assistance from local residents.
"If you just relax and let the waves take you, you can get past the rip current," advised Polo Beach Club worker Allen Reynolds, who responded to their cries for help.
WAILUKU » Shouts from the wind-whipped ocean alarmed Allen Reynolds, a 14-year employee at the Polo Beach Club condominium in South Maui.
"It started sounding serious," Reynolds recalled yesterday. "There was a sense of urgency in this person's voice -- and then there was more than one person yelling."
When he reached the shore, he saw four people in the water. "A man and woman near shore indicated they would be OK, but two men about 50 yards offshore appeared to be in trouble," Reynolds said.
A frequent bodysurfer and snorkeler, he had seen this scene unfold before.
Riptides offshore can be vicious, especially when energized by winds funneled between Haleakala and the West Maui mountains.
"It was really windy and choppy, and they were trying to swim against the rip and had already panicked," Reynolds said.
One of the men survived the incident Tuesday afternoon.
The other, a tourist from Oregon who went to his aid, did not, police said.
In a short statement, Maui police said Kuon Phou, 29, had been trying to assist four others caught in a riptide but became caught himself during the incident, reported at 2:01 p.m. at Polo Beach. An autopsy was to be performed but had not been scheduled as of yesterday.
While no information was available on the other swimmers, the incident prompted several local residents to offer warnings of their own about the sea's deceptive hazards.
"It's hard to really picture just how messy this water gets and how choppy -- like a washing machine -- when the wind is really howling," said Polo Beach Club employee Andy Clark.
Clark says Reynolds has assisted with three rescues in two years at the rock outcroppings just south of Polo Beach, the most recent last year when a father and son were brought to shore.
"Those rocks look just nice and tame, like you just can pop out and hop on them, but you can't," said Clark. "It's undoable."
Reynolds said experienced swimmers know it is a mistake to fight a rip current.
"The trick is just to get out there and have them follow you, because anybody who is out there probably knows how to swim," he said. "And if they can swim, you just get out there, get their attention, keep them company and keep them calm. ... If you just relax and let the waves take you, you can get past the rip current."
He swam out to help, and for a while it looked like he might be successful.
One of the men followed Reynolds' advice and made it to shore, but the other "suddenly turned towards the rocks where people were standing about 15 feet away," Reynolds recalled. "I guess he just panicked. And it looked like he was trying to head for the people. ... Next thing, a wave passed him, and all I see is him face down in the water."
Wailea resident John "Jac" Kean arrived to assist with a surfboard, and a lifeguard arrived shortly after with a flotation device, and they got Phou out of the ocean. But Reynolds said it was already too late.
"His eyes -- there was nobody there, and he was gone," he said.
Maui County Ocean Safety Supervisor Archie Kalepa said attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation were unsuccessful.
The nearest lifeguard station is about two miles to the north at Kamaole III Beach Park, but police Acting Lt. Jamie Becraft said signs warning of a riptide were posted.
Kalepa said lifeguard services are in place only at county beach parks but that the Parks Department has obtained approval for service at Makena through state funding next fiscal year.
Clark said, "They were very lucky that he (Reynolds) was here, or it could have been worse than one person. He knows this water like the back of his hand."