Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Shark survivor

By P.F. Bentley, special to the Star-Bulletin

'It was halfway out of the water.
I couldn't see the teeth because
his mouth was closed around my arm.
My elbow was down its throat.'

Jesse Spencer


In his first interview, a
Big Island surfer describes the
terror as a shark chomped on his arm
down to the bone, and talks about
plans to return to surfing soon

Insurance doesn't cover bills
'Baywatch' offers set visit

By Tim Ryan


ArtEAUHOU, HAWAII -- It is the nightmare of anyone who spends time in the ocean.

Jesse Spencer, 16, had only been surfing the waves off Old Airport for about two weeks with his friend, Bala Clark, 14. But the spot, just north of Kailua-Kona, still held the allure of a new discovery though it's been a popular local break for years and known as a place not requiring a large swell to have ridable waves.

And that's why Jesse, who's been surfing about two years, and Bala decided to surf there Oct. 1, because other spots closer to Jesse's home in Keauhou were flat. The surf at Pavilions was about 2 feet but glassy, well shaped and "fun," Jesse recalled at the townhome where he lives with his mother, Rose Singarella.

The two boys had been surfing pretty much alone for about 2-1/2 hours. The sun had just set, and Jesse, lying on his week-old and slightly used 5-foot-11-inch Al Merrick thruster, was facing shoreward when he looked over his left shoulder at friend Bala about 20 feet away to see if another set was approaching. A few bodyboarders sat a couple hundred yards to the south.

The water was clear and Jesse, 5-5 and 112 pounds, was enjoying the solitude before catching what would be his last wave.

Then it hit. Something large, powerful and determined slammed into the right side of Jesse's thin board, tipping it over on its rail. Jesse at first thought it was a friend "messing with me." The boy counterbalanced the push, quickly turning to see what it was.

What it was, Jesse remembers with clarity, was a 10-foot shark that came half out of the water with such impact that its nose hit Jesse in the head near his right temple, leaving a bruise and a circular scrape the boy still sports.

"When I looked, I saw the shark right next to me," said Jesse in his first interview about the attack. "It had so much momentum that it pushed me out of the water while it grabbed my (right) shoulder and arm."

Jesse can barely recall what the shark looked like except that it was "fairly fat, had a blunt nose and was sorta brownish gray." State officials suspect it was a tiger shark.

"I could almost see the whole shark when he was on me," said Jesse, a junior at Kealakehe High School. "It was halfway out of the water. I couldn't see the teeth because his mouth was closed around my arm. My elbow was down its throat."

Severe injuries

The shark took only one bite out of Jesse's arm and a small chunk of his $250 surfboard. But damage to his arm was extensive.

In the biceps area of the right arm the bite severed muscles, tendons, ligaments, veins, nerves and arteries, slashing all the way to the bone in a 360-degree pattern, Singarella said. Injuries to the forearm weren't as extensive but still cut two-thirds of the way to the bone.

Jesse felt neither pain nor fear during or after the attack, which he said lasted "about two seconds."

"Once the shark grabbed me it started shaking my arm back and forth," he said. "I could feel the teeth sort of sawing against the (arm) bone."

He never saw the shark after the attack.

But Jesse, who had been knocked off his board, still had to get to shore. He climbed back on and tried to paddle with both arms.

He looked at the bite and what he saw scared him badly.

"It was all cut open and I could see the bone," he said. "If I had kept staring at it I would have gone crazy."

'Baywatch,' surf shop
showing support

"Baywatch Hawaii" and Local Motion are teaming up to give Jesse Spencer a new surfboard to replace the one damaged during his shark attack.

"When we heard about Jesse's accident in the Star-Bulletin we wanted to do something to inspire this kid to have as quick a recovery as possible, and one day get him back in the water on a new surfboard," said Craig Kwasizur, "Baywatch Hawaii" producer.

Calvin Maeda, Local Motion's marketing director, said Jesse survived something that terrifies all surfers.

"Jesse has the heart and confidence that all surfers pride themselves in and Local Motion wants to do anything that may give him an extra boost to get back into the water," he said.

Local Motion, which supplies products to the "Baywatch Hawaii" production, will give Jesse a choice of a custom-made Al Merrick surfboard, the same brand as the one damaged in the attack. Jesse can also pick one off the rack, Maeda said.

Local Motion and "Baywatch Hawaii" also will give Jesse a "surf pack" that includes a surfboard leash, board shorts, T-shirts, bag, wax and Lycra top, Maeda said.

"We will custom build whatever he wants and needs," Maeda said.

Surfboards by Al Merrick, based in Santa Barbara, are the first choice of many professional surfers.

Jesse had purchased his 5-foot-11-inch thruster used but in excellent condition for $250 a week before he was attacked by by what state officials believe was a tiger shark. A new Merrick surfboard of the same size costs about $550, Maeda said.

"We would also want to invite Jesse and his friends to the "Baywatch' set either here on Oahu or when we start filming on the Big Island on Dec. 1," Kwasizur said. "He has an open invitation anytime he feels up to it."

When he tried to paddle, his right arm was "just flopping around" because "everything inside had been cut off," he said.

"I held it up while I paddled with my left hand."

Meanwhile, his buddy Bala was yelling to people on shore to call 911. A wave crashed behind Jesse and knocked him off his board again.

"I was worried about getting to shore because I was bleeding a lot, and feeling dizzy," he said.

Ten feet from shore Jesse decided to paddle farther south to avoid lava rocks because he didn't want to ding his board or cut his feet. On shore, Jesse flopped onto his back as several people ran to help him.

During the wait for the ambulance Jesse wanted to sleep but while one man tied a tourniquet around Jesse's arm, another man kept patting his face to keep him awake; a woman talked to Jesse to keep him distracted from the ghastly injury.

Jesse had never seen a shark while surfing but, like all surfers, there were times when a ripple or a turtle's fin gave him a start. The Old Kona Airport reef has several caves down around 30 feet where, Jesse has since learned, sharks have been spotted by divers. A hundred yards farther offshore the reef drops into deep ocean to about 300 feet, he said.

"You hear stories and you think you see things but you never think you're going to be the one who'll get bit," he said.

By the time his mom, who does network marketing and catering, had been notified by Kona police and then arrived at the hospital from her job, Jesse was already in surgery. His dad, who lives in Puna, was already there.

'Divine reason'

At Kona Hospital, Jesse's artery was reconnected to get circulation flowing again, though he would continue to bleed from the other injuries until he underwent another surgery the next day at Queen's Hospital in Honolulu.

Jesse, who has lost 10 pounds since the attack, has the muscles of a developing young waterman. He's deeply tanned, skin tight against his cheeks, the left arm well developed from what Mom called her son's "obsessive love of surfing."

"I think that there is some divine reason for this," Singarella said. "Even when he had a broken arm, he asked the doctor to fit him with a waterproof cast to let him keep surfing."

At Queens, Jesse underwent two more surgeries. The wound has not been stitched closed because Jesse's arm suffered a serious infection, Singarella said. Staples close the injury; the arm is bandaged until the final surgery -- around Thanksgiving -- to reattach tendons, ligaments and nerves.

He'll surf again

The attack has made Jesse an uncomfortable celebrity in Kailua-Kona.

"I really don't like being famous for this," he said. "It feels kind of weird ... plenty people look at me double thinking, 'There's shark boy.' "

He's only had one dream about the attack.

"It's my first time back surfing. I dive underwater and there are a bunch of sharks. I grab onto a dorsal fin and ride it to shore where I chop the shark in half. My dad sticks his hand inside the back and pretends it's a puppet."

Singarella shuddered and smiled when she hears her son recall the attack.

"Jesse has an incredible, positive attitude about life," she said. "And he has ... expectations; he expects to be whole again."

There's no doubt in Jesse's mind about whether he will surf again.

"I won't go out in the same spot again, or at dawn or dusk," he said.

"I know that first time back out will be pretty scary so I'm going to try to work my way up like going snorkeling in a clear, shallow place. But nothing is going to stop me from surfing again."

Medical insurance
covers little; friends
create fund to help pay

The shark that attacked Jesse Spencer
took far more than a chunk out of the
16-year-old's arm and surfboard.

By Tim Ryan


Spencer so far has had three surgeries and will have at least one more to reattach the severed ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves in his right arm. Rose Singarella, Spencer's mother, said the cost of medical care may exceed $200,000. That's a hundred times more than the $2,000 limit in insurance carried by her former husband, Terrence, a wood crafter and draftsman in east Hawaii. Singarella, who does network marketing and catering, has no medical insurance.

"No one knows what the final cost will be and we don't know what the bills are to date," she said during an interview.

The family has filed with the state for medical assistance under the Hawaii Quest program, but whether they qualify will not be known for several weeks, according to Singarella and state officials. Hawaii Quest provides health coverage through managed-care plans for eligible lower-income Hawaii residents.

Eligibility depends on a family's monthly income, a state official said.

Singarella's application with the state was filed with the state Department of Human Services on Oct. 4. Determination of eligibility takes about four to six weeks when requested under an emergency status, the state official said.

"What it doesn't cover I guess I'll pay in small monthly fees for the rest of my life," Singarella said.

In the meantime, friends of the family have established a medical fund for Jesse.

Send contributions to:

Friends of Jesse Spencer
P.O. Box 390065
Kailua-Kona, HI 96739

For more information, call 1-800-461-9927.

E-mail to City Desk

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