WAILUKU — To sit in Colin Yamamoto’s office a visitor has to remove a 7-pound scrapbook from the spare chair next to the Maui County ocean safety chief’s desk.
“Sorry,” Yamamoto said, putting the album marked No. 4 in his lap. “I was updating and I’m behind.”
Often that means the Maui Fire Department battalion chief who oversees county lifeguards is cataloguing articles about local ocean drownings. But on Tuesday after Memorial Day, Yamamoto was preserving clippings about a happy milestone in his three years on the job.
“We’ve been trying to get rescue tubes installed at public beaches on Maui since 2014,” he said. “Last Saturday the Rotary Club of Kihei-Wailea got 28 put in at six South Maui parks, from Kalama to Kamaole III. It’s been a long time coming.”
The day-glow yellow tubes, 50-inches long and mounted on 6-foot white poles topped by a yellow flag and a stenciled GPS location number, are anchored at the vegetation line above the beach’s high-water mark. The lightweight “grab and throw” devices can support up to three adults.
“When people are struggling in the ocean their first instinct is to try to swim to shore, but that can be a no go,” Yamamoto said. “It’s hard not to panic, so a rescue tube gives people a chance to wrap their arms around the flotation device, hold on and just float and kick while they wait for 911 first responders.”
Ocean drownings, which claimed 143 lives, are second only to suicide as the leading cause of fatal injuries in Maui County between 2006 and 2016.
Yamamoto was an EMT-certified veteran Paia fire captain when he was appointed ocean safety chief in March 2014. He soon began compiling drowning stories as well as statistics.
Flipping through albums No. 2 and No. 3, he singled out individuals – a 58-year-old Lahaina man at D. T. Fleming Beach, a 23-year-old man near Lahaina Harbor, a 61-year-old tourist from Oregon in Kihei, a 41-year-old Maui woman at Kaanapali, a male from South Korea snorkeling at Black Rock.
“I want to personalize these numbers you see in the paper and hear about on the news,” Yamamoto said. “These were real people. They had families and loved ones whose lives were changed forever.”
Nearly three out of every four persons who drowned in Maui County in the past decade didn’t live here.
“The (tourists) aren’t our visitors, they are our customers. We spend millions of dollars to get them here and they bring us millions and millions of dollars as our customers. Why don’t we spend some of that money to keep them safer while they’re here?”
Yamamoto especially hopes rescue tubes will prevent double tragedies — a Samaritan dying while attempting to save someone else. Pulling down scrapbook No. 1, he flips straight to a Feb. 18, 2015 entry about two attractive, high-achieving University of Hawaii Maui College students from Kahului.
Edelene Parilla, 18, and Emmanuel Tabbay, 19, were walking along the shoreline with another couple near Honokohau Bay when a wave swept Parilla into the water. Tabbay jumped in the water. Their bodies were recovered together.
“When somebody you love is in trouble your instinct is to rush to help them,” he said. “Getting rescue tubes installed around the island can prevent double drownings. If there had been one (at Honokohau) somebody could have thrown it to these young people who had their whole lives ahead of them.”
Very few tubes have been reported missing, and occasionally one will be anonymously returned. High tides dragged away a few others. KLA has documented use of the tubes in more than 100 rescues.
Hawaii Island followed in 2012, with 24 installations at its county parks near Hilo. This spring on Oahu, the Hawaii Kai Lions Club gave away 100 rescue tubes as a safety promotion. It plans to expand the program in the coming months.
On Maui, hotels in Kihei and Wailea, and the Kaanapali Operations Association, have purchased and placed at least 35 of the flotation devices in sand fronting their private property.
Yamamoto took his rescue tube campaign for county beaches to Mayor Alan Arakawa in April 2015.
But supporters hoping for swift installation learned the devil’s in the details when Arakawa’s risk management attorneys refused to consider any agreement which made Maui government responsible for putting the devices on public beaches.
“I was on a mission to make things better but it was held back by county attorneys afraid of liability,” Yamamoto said.
Like KLA on Kauai, the Kihei-Wailea Rotary Club committed to purchase, install, maintain and do monthly inspections of the rescue tubes. Rotary International assumed liability coverage and even included the county on its insurance policy. The local Rotarians patterned their agreement on the Kauai pact.
“This has been a shaggy dog story,” said MaryMargaret Baker, co-chair of the service group’s rescue tube committee. “We raised $4,000 and committed to do everything, including protecting the county against liability, but it still took a lot of discussion and revisions.”
Jeff Ueoka, deputy corporation counsel who signed the seven-page agreement on behalf of Maui County, said he negotiated with the Rotary Club for two years because “we didn’t want to jump in blind.”
“They were very cooperative and it was great working with them. But you know government, we had to make sure we were doing it properly,” Ueoka said. “Colin Yamamoto was very instrumental and helpful in getting it done. This is wonderful.”
Baker also praised Yamamoto.
“We know the rescue tubes will save lives because they have on Kauai and here on Maui in front of the hotels,” Baker said. “We hope the ones now at public beach parks will be welcomed with aloha and respected.”
She said her group will continue to deploy more flotation devices, including 12 at Keawakapu Beach Park in Kihei on June 24.
“We turned in an application to the state (Division of Parks) on Dec. 17 to allow us to install them at three Makena State Park beaches but we haven’t heard anything back,” Baker said.
Nine people, all from the U.S. mainland, died between 2006 and 2015 at Makena Beach Park.
Coming Thursday: The origins of the modern rescue tube go back nearly a century.
Read Civil Beat’s investigative series, “Dying For Vacation,” about the high rate of tourist drownings in Hawaii and what can be done to prevent them.
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