Big Isle tour boat captain lends aid in ocean tragedy


POSTED: Tuesday, January 13, 2009

HILO » Flames erupted furiously from a boat near the rocky shore of the Big Island as Kona tour boat captain Deron Verbeck pulled his vessel nearer.

“;The captain of the boat is in the water!”; someone on shore shouted.

Fire Department rescue personnel were also at the scene of the Sunday morning accident, so Verbeck motored back out to sea, following a trail of debris from the blazing boat.

He told his crew to look into the water, not at the surface.

“;We're looking for a body now,”; he told them.

Moments later he saw rescue personnel pull the captain's body from the sea.

Authorities identified the captain as Robert Lewis, 57, of Kona.

Lewis lost his life after he went to the aid of two kayakers. A cause of death has not been announced.

Lewis' wife, also 57, was thrown from their 18-foot fiberglass boat but was rescued, authorities said. She was taken to Kona Community Hospital in guarded condition.

The kayakers escaped without major injury.

Verbeck had seen the kayakers fishing a quarter-mile offshore when he left Honokohau Small Boat Harbor before 8 a.m. and headed five miles down the coast to pick up passengers at Kailua Bay. They planned a tour of Kealakekua Bay farther south.

He canceled the tour when he saw a wall of clouds coming from the north and felt 50 mph winds. He also saw Fire Department rescue personnel heading north in a boat.

They asked for help looking for kayakers.

Rain pelted Verbeck's face as he headed north. Through it he saw a fishing boat headed toward the rocks, then a huge billow of black smoke.

“;That boat's on fire,”; he told his crew. “;We're going over there to see if they need help.”;

He saw three people on shore, two tending to the third.

That was when he heard that the captain was in the water.

Waves put out the fire, and a would-be rescue boat tried to pull the charred boat off the rocks, but the cleat holding a rope tore out.

Verbeck got a line and started towing, but the boat burst into flames again. Fire Department personnel used extinguishers to put it out.

Verbeck got all the way into Honokohau harbor when fire broke out a third time. A hose on shore put it out.

Somebody found Lewis' wallet. At sea, Verbeck found a $100 bill and someone else found $300.

“;I'm trying to get hold of the wife to give her the money back,”; Verbeck said. “;She needs it now.”;