Shark kills Maui surfer

The Honolulu Advertiser
Thursday, April 8, 2004

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

KAHANA, Maui — A shark killed a surfer in murky waters off Pohaku Park in Kahana yesterday.

Pohaku Park
A county water safety officer patrols the ocean off Pohaku Park in Kahana, where friends set up a makeshift memorial for Willis "Will" McInnis. Beaches a mile north and south of where the attack occurred were expected to reopen today.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

It was Hawai'i's first confirmed shark-attack death in almost 12 years.

Willis "Will" McInnis, 57, of Kahana, suffered a 14-inch bite wound in his upper right thigh and died of blood loss before he could be brought to shore, witnesses said.

McInnis was the only surfer in the water about 200 to 300 yards offshore at the surf spot known as S-Turns when Rodger Coomds and Tina Cooper paddled out to join him at 7 a.m. yesterday. They had no idea he had been attacked by a shark when they heard him yell, "Help me, help me!"

"Will is usually pretty happy out there. He makes a lot of noise. I thought he was being happy," Cooper said.

Coomds, 60, a retired Los Angeles policeman, paddled over to McInnis to see what was wrong. "I thought maybe he hit his head but when I scanned his body, there was a big chunk out of his leg. It was half bitten through," he said.

Cooper headed in to get someone to call 911 while Coomds abandoned his surfboard and pushed the fatally injured surfer toward shore. McInnis slid off his board several times and told Coomds, "I think my leg is toast."

Coomds struggled to keep the surfer's head above water and other beachgoers helped bring him to the rocky shore, but it was too late.

Charlie Nakagawa, 58, who knew McInnis through the Hui O Pohaku Park surf club, said he was working on a home construction site just across the street when he paused for breakfast.

Map "I saw Will catch a wave, and I saw him drop off the board. The next thing I saw was another set, and I thought he was going to swim to get under the wave. I saw splashes, unusual splashes. They were big," he said.

Curtis Kaiwi, 45, another surf club member, was at a job site close by when he got a call about the shark attack. He rushed to the park and used Cooper's surfboard to help bring McInnis to shore. He said a visiting paramedic from a neighboring condominium wrapped McInnis' leg until a Department of Fire Control crew from Napili arrived and used a defibrillator to try to revive the man.

None of the witnesses said they saw the animal, but Randy Honebrink, spokesman for the state's Shark Task Force, said he suspects it was a tiger shark, the culprit in numerous other ocean attacks throughout the state.

The spot is not known for sharks, but murky water and 3- to 4-foot west swells are just the sort of conditions that prompt warnings from officials.

Much of the nearshore ocean along the northwest coast from Ka'anapali to Kahana was brown from runoff. A drainage channel empties right into the ocean at Pohaku Park, although it wasn't flowing yesterday.

News of McInnis' death spread quickly, and it wasn't long before parkgoers erected a white cross on a bench looking out at the surf break where the attack occurred. Flowers and lei were draped around the cross, which displayed a photo of a bearded McInnis smiling and hugging two other club members.

Patrick Sanchez
Patrick Sanchez places flowers at a memorial at Pohaku Park in Kahana, Maui, where Willis McInnis was fatally attacked by a shark.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

Friends said McInnis, a Vietnam veteran who had lived on Maui off and on since the 1970s, stayed alone in a Kahana apartment and had a son in Oregon. As an avid member of Hui O Pohaku Park, he was a fixture at beach cleanups, keiki surf contests and other club events.

"He was beautiful man with a beautiful heart," Kaiwi said.

Beaches a mile north and south of where the attack occurred were expected to reopen at noon today after county water safety officers and state Department of Land and Natural Resources personnel check the nearshore ocean for sharks.

Jeremy Franks, director of guest activities at the nearby Noelani Condominium Resort, has surfed the area often without fear of being bitten. "It's a local hangout," he said. "It isn't known as a shark hangout. It is the first time I think it has ever happened."

Kaiwi said although kupuna often talked of an 11- to 12-foot shark frequenting the S-Turns area, he has never seen one in the 20-plus years he's been surfing there. He said murky water isn't enough to deter most surfers when waves roll in.

"Us die-hard surfers want to get in there when the swells are here," he said.

Throughout the day yesterday, club members and others dropped by to talk about the tragedy, sing and play 'ukulele, and a raise a beer or two in McInnis' memory.

Kanamu Balinbin said despite the death of his friend, he wouldn't hesitate returning to the waves at S-Turns. "I feel safer," he said. "One more of the good guys watching over us."

The last confirmed shark-attack fatality in the state was on Nov. 5, 1992, when bodyboarder Aaron Romento was bitten about 30 yards off Kea'au Beach Park on O'ahu's Wai'anae coast. A shark estimated to be 10 to 12 feet long bit Romento on the right leg.

At least three other shark attacks have occurred along the coast of West Maui in the past five years. On Nov. 17, 2002, a woman was bitten on her right shoulder and nearly lost her right hand in an attack near Ka'anapali, just south of Kahana. On Jan. 1 that same year, a snorkeler was bitten on the buttocks by a tiger shark at Olowalu.

On March 5, 1999, a woman swimming off Ka'anapali was attacked by a large shark that left a 13-inch gash in one of her legs.

Staff writer Mike Gordon contributed to this report. Reach Christie Wilson at or (808) 244-4880.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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