Tuesday | January 24, 2017
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Puna teen recovering after shark bite

The 16-year-old surfer attacked by a shark Sunday afternoon at Pohoiki is recuperating after being operated on and receiving several hundred stitches at Hilo Medical Center.

Kalapana resident Jimmy Ulualoha “Ulu Boy” Napeahi was in relatively good spirits, visiting with more than a dozen friends, family members and other well-wishers in his hospital room Monday afternoon. Littering the wall were cards, photographs and other mementos wishing him a speedy recovery. Behind his bed, resting up against the wall, was the surfboard he was sitting on when the shark bit into his legs.

“I know one thing. I’m never going to ride that board again. I don’t know if I’m going to burn it, or hang it on my wall. But I won’t be riding it again,” he said.

When asked how he was feeling, he replied simply with “Sore.”

Napeahi said he had just finished riding a wave and was sitting on his board, resting for a moment in the water at Dead Trees surfing spot at Pohoiki when he was suddenly hit by an estimated 8-foot shark around 1:30 p.m.

“It hit me so fast, I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I was just lucky I had a good group of friends surfing with me. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be one dead duck.”

Napeahi gave most of the credit for his rescue to the cool-headed response of his friend, former lifeguard Dallas O’Shaunnessy. The two shared an emotional moment when they spoke together for the first time since Sunday’s attack.

“Thank you. You were the one that got me. … If it wasn’t for you, brah, I don’t know,” Napeahi said as he clasped his friend’s hand. “Thank God you were there.”

“I’m just glad you’re here, too,” O’Shaunnessy replied. “You’re my brother, I’d do anything for you.”

The 34-year-old Kalapana resident said he had just caught a wave and was paddling back to join Napeahi when he saw his friend being violently thrashed then dragged under water.

“All of a sudden, everyone scrambled, heading for the rocks,” he said. “I turned around, about to go back in, when I thought, ‘But, he’s in trouble. I gotta get out there,’” he said. “He was already kind of out of it when I got to him. And there was so much blood in the water.”

O’Shaunnessy said he was scared that he, too, could be bitten, but he didn’t want to leave Napeahi alone and in shock.

“I really don’t know if I’d do the same thing again. I just knew I had to get him back in,” he said.

O’Shaunnessy swam out to his friend and pulled him back to shore and onto the safety of the rocks.

Once on dry land, Napeahi said he first learned the extent of his wounds.

“I reached my hand around to the back of my leg, and my fingers just kind of sunk deep into my leg,” he said. “I was really scared. And by that point I couldn’t hear or see too good. I was losing it, I was about to go out.”

The shark had managed to bite the boy on the buttocks and the rear of both legs, all the way up to his waist, he said.

“In some places the gashes were 2 or 3 inches deep, some places down to the bone. He chewed me up good,” he said.

Luckily, however, the shark bite didn’t sever any ligaments or arteries and mainly damaged only muscle tissue, he said.

O’Shaunnessy grabbed a surfboard leash and began tying a tourniquet around Napeahi’s legs to stanch the heavy bleeding.

As he did so, Napeahi’s mother, Claire, approached after having seen the commotion from the beach.

“I saw when everybody was coming back in to the rocks, and they all stood up, one by one, except for Ulu. That’s when I knew he was the one that got bit. … I was scared,” she said.

An ambulance arrived about 20 minutes later and took the 16-year-old to a landing site in Pahoa where he was rushed to Hilo Medical Center’s Emergency Department.

Napeahi and his family had nothing but high praise for the doctors, nurses and staff at HMC, saying that everyone did a marvelous job of taking charge of the situation and putting Ulu and his mother at ease.

Despite his injuries, Napeahi said he has no doubts about his plans to get back in the water as soon as possible.

“I’ve been surfing since I was 4 years old. It’s been my passion,” he said. “I’ve been around the ocean all my life. And the shark, that’s his territory. I’ve always respected that. And this time, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t blame the shark. He was just doing his thing.”

Napeahi, who attends Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science in Pahoa, said he’s taking a light load of classes this year as he continues to pursue his dream of surfing professionally, but he figures he’ll still have plenty of makeup work to look forward to. It shouldn’t be a problem, he said, because he’s still as determined as ever.

“I’ve always been well focused. I never smoke, I never drank. I take care of myself. I really want to make something out of nothing. … I’m going to get back in the water, and I may have months of recovery, physical therapy, but I’m going to continue to follow my dream,” he said.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.