HONOLULU (AP) — Witnesses who watched a Northern California man get sucked into a Maui blow hole to his apparent death say that the tourist was dancing around and frolicking in the sprays of water moments before a wave knocked him down.
Rocco Piganelli, of La Jolla, Calif., said he stared in horror as he watched a large wave push the tourist into the hole off Nakalele Point on Saturday afternoon. The man popped up briefly with the next wave, then disappeared.
“We all stared for like 30 seconds and then I realized — he’s gone. He’s down there,” Piganelli told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I felt like I was going to throw up.”
Piganelli, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines, readied himself to attempt to resuscitate the man, fully expecting him eventually surface. But the man never did.
“The girl who was with him let out this horrifying scream,” he said.
He and other tourists scrambled over a cliff to look for the man out in the ocean as powerful waves crashed violently against sharp rocks.
“In my heart, I kind of knew he wasn’t coming out,” Piganelli said. “I wanted to give him hope because it was all I could do.”
The blowhole, which is featured in several travel websites, was created by pounding surf that undercut and wore away a lava shelf. Every wave pushes water and air through the hole, creating an eruption similar to a geyser. The Halona Blowhole on Oahu is another popular tourist attraction.
An aerial and sea search for David Potts, 44, of San Anselmo, was called off Monday.
Maui police Lt. Wayne Ibarra said rough waters on the northern side of Maui and poor visibility complicated the search.
Moments before Potts was washed away, Piganelli snapped a photograph of his daughter and friends. A giant spray of water is captured high above the three girls standing in their bikinis. A closer look at the photo, obtained by AP, shows a man in shorts standing next to the blow hole behind the curtain of water. Piganelli identifies the man as the victim.
Maui police said it had not seen the photo and could not immediately verify if the man was Potts.
Erica Meyer, whose family is vacationing with Piganelli’s family, recalled thinking that it was foolish for the man to be mere inches from the blow hole’s opening.
“We’re watching it thinking it’s crazy these guys are doing that,” she told the AP.
Potts stood in front of the blow hole with his back to the ocean when the wave hit, Meyer said. “It was very, very fast, within a matter of seconds.”
That’s when chaos and screaming ensued. Someone called 911. Bystanders tried to prevent the girlfriend’s brother from jumping in to find Potts.
“It was just horrific,” Meyer said. “That’s the only way to describe the scene.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)