Tyler Madoff was a junior lifeguard, played football for Scarsdale High School in New York, captained the crew team and excelled academically.
The 15-year-old had everything going for him, including the “trip of a lifetime.”
In 2012, Tyler’s parents paid $4,500 plus a plane ticket to send Tyler on a month-long adventure in Hawaii with a dozen other teens from across the country.
Bold Earth Adventures, a Colorado adventure tour company, organized the trip to the Kona Coast on the Big Island, led by guides in their early 20s. The company subcontracted with a local tour operator, Hawaii Pack and Paddle.
But on July 4, 2012, the trip took a tragic turn. On a kayaking excursion in Kealakekua Bay, a state historic park that offers exceptional snorkeling and prospects of paddling alongside dolphins, Tyler was swept out to sea by sudden strong waves that engulfed a tide pool he and others in the group had been relaxing in.
Tyler’s body was never found, and his parents ultimately sued Bold Earth and Hawaii Pack and Paddle.
“Bold Earth boasts to parents on their website that their goal is to deliver an experience in leadership, independence and challenge that meets or exceeds your expectations for safety and growth — and further boasts of professional and top-notch guardianship for the teenagers,” Susan Karten, the Madoffs’ attorney, told reporters at a press conference in August 2012 announcing the family’s decision to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
At the time of the accident, Hawaii Pack and Paddle was one of four tour operators issued permits by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to lead tours in the area of Captain Cook Monument. That’s where Tyler’s group spent a few hours kayaking and snorkeling, but came ashore to explore part of the monument.
But the tour guides decided to lead the group on a hike to the south shore near Napoopoo lighthouse, described in the lawsuit as a “treacherous and off limits area which consisted of jagged and crater filled lava rock terrain with violent surf pounding and churning the coastal area waters.”
The guides, according to the lawsuit, directed the young visitors to relax and swim in the tide pools, which they called the “fun zone.”
But before long, the group found itself in trouble and unable to climb out of the pools.
“Members of the group were thrashed and thrown in different directions by the violent waves. Some of the teenagers scrambled for cover out of the tide pools and attempted to grab on to anything to keep them from being swept back out of the tidal pools and into the ocean by the violently receding waves,” the lawsuit said.
“Others, including Tyler, were struck by the waves and smashed against the lava rocks in the tidal pools. Tyler was then carried away by the rushing, churning, receding waters through the jagged tidal pool toward the cliff of the shoreline area and into the ocean.”
Fifteen-year-old Matthew Alzate, of Miami, Florida, was also swept into the sea, but was rescued with the help of a local fisherman. It took more than an hour for emergency responders to reach the site, the lawsuit said.
Tour boats helped search the waters in the meantime, and the local guides helped rescue some of the teens.
The Hawaii County Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard and police searched for several days, but never found Tyler’s body.
“This particular tour was run by tour guides who made very bad decisions,” Michael Madoff, the teen’s father, told Civil Beat last month.
The family did not wish to speak further of the incident.
The Madoffs especially fault Andrew Mork, the 22-year-old “team leader” for the Bold Earth trip, saying he used poor judgment when he allowed the two Hawaii Pack and Paddle guides to take the teens to the tide pools.
In an affidavit filed in the case, Mork recounted his version of events, before and after the drowning.
“I was continuing to the larger pool when the third wave struck,” he said. “I hunkered down, then managed to reach the pool as the water was receding back into the ocean. As I approached it, I saw Tyler being sucked out of the bath with the receding water. I was too far away from him to make any attempt at saving him.
“His face was emotionless and he was making no effort to save himself. I assumed he’d been knocked unconscious.”
Bold Earth and Hawaii Pack and Paddle blame each other for the decision to take the young people to the tide pools, and others suggest the teens ignored the guides’ warnings to stay on higher ground. There may always be dispute over what transpired that day and who is to blame, if anyone.
The Madoffs’ lawsuit was settled in 2014 for an undisclosed amount. Michael Madoff said at the time it wasn’t about the money, but rather a hope that other families won’t have to experience a similar tragedy.
DLNR revoked Hawaii Pack and Paddle’s permit after finding the company had violated three provisions — exceeding the maximum time per landing, deviating from the authorized area and exceeding the maximum number of guests. No criminal charges were filed.
There were dozens of requirements in the permit. At a minimum, the business had to be in good standing in Hawaii, hold a current general excise tax license and have no outstanding complaints or unpaid fines for violations of any laws or rules administered by the state land board.
The company was also required to give the DLNR a statement of its background and experience with kayak tours; a copy of its lifeguard, CPR and first-aid certifications; and proof of carrying $1 million in liability commercial general insurance. The permit also explicitly restricted the company to landing and launching kayaks from specific sites, storing them in specific areas and walking along designated trails.
Although Hawaii Pack and Paddle’s permit was revoked in September 2012 — three months after Tyler Madoff’s death — online reviews on Yelp! and TripAdvisor talk about great kayak trips being led by the company.
The DLNR did not respond to a request for information about the status of Hawaii Pack and Paddle’s permit. The Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs lists the business as “not in good standing,” and its phone number on the Big Island has been disconnected.
In 2012, Bold Earth issued a statement to the media about the Madoff incident, calling the drowning “simply a terrible, natural event with tragic consequences.”
The company says it checks employee backgrounds for felony offenses, child abuse and drug abuse. But, as the lawsuit noted, Mork had a criminal record including disorderly conduct, marijuana possession and traffic offenses.
Bold Earth declined to comment for this story.
Jim Howe, a longtime ocean safety expert who has been an expert witness for both plaintiffs and defendants in cases involving tour operators, said part of the problem is that tour companies hire people who are new to Hawaii and have little or no knowledge of the ocean or trails or conditions in the islands even though they will be making recommendations to tourists or even leading customers on tours.
They’re often paid minimum wage and the companies just “churn them and burn them,” he said.
Howe, who was one of the first lifeguards at Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu, has given safety talks to employees of tour companies and helped develop an ocean safety website for them to use to advise their customers about possibly risky conditions.
Loretta Sheehan, of the Honolulu law firm Davis Levin Livingston, which represented the Madoffs, issued a statement announcing the settlement in 2014 that said the family was resolved to move on.
“They hope that Tyler’s memory will provide incentive for all tour companies to create and enforce safety programs as they interact with Hawaii’s unique environment,” she said. “This was an incident that was completely preventable and the challenge is to ensure something like this will never happen again.”
On Wednesday, recalling the case, she said the family had not considered suing the state because the tour guides were so clearly wrong to take the group into the non-permitted area in violation of the state’s rules.
Still, there’s a fine point to be made at times when it comes to the state’s responsibility balanced against encouraging a strong tourism presence.
“There’s a tension,” Sheehan said. “We are tourism dependent. It produces income and employment for our people if we allow tourism companies to operate. And so the state creates safety rules. But at the end of the day, tour operators have to follow those rules.”
Marina Riker contributed reporting to this story.