HONOLULU (CBS/AP) — The fiancée of the Marin County man who was sucked into a blowhole to his apparent death said Friday there should have been signs warning people of the dangers of the geyser-like creation along a rugged stretch of the Maui coastline.
Tika Hick told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday from San Anselmo that 44-year-old David Potts vanished into the ocean during a vacation to enjoy some time in the Maui sun before she undergoes a double mastectomy next week following a recent breast cancer diagnosis.
Eyewitness accounts from tourists who were there said Potts was dancing around inches from the hole’s opening and playing in the sprays of water shooting high into the sky when he disappeared.
Hick disputed that description and took local officials to task for not posting warning signs at the site. She was not at the blowhole at the time, but said her brother and sister-in-law were there.
“He slipped because it was slippery,” said a sobbing Hick.
The incident has served as another tragic reminder of the dangers lurking along undeveloped stretches of Hawaii’s shoreline.
Online travel sites warn of the rocky cliffs near the blowhole and its unpredictable eruptions. The blowhole 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. Then as the water retreats, it creates a strong vacuum-like effect.
Maui County officials said the blowhole appears to be on private land, according to property records, but were still in the process of verifying that. The county said people were continuing to visit the area, despite being told of what happened to Potts.
Previous injuries and deaths at other tourist spots on private land have raised questions of responsibility and liability when visitors are technically trespassing to get there. Landowners are not required to post warning signs.
The only signage at the Nakalele blowhole is a quarter-mile away — a handmade sign that cautions visitors, “Blowhole, park and walk at your own risk.”
“We urge all visitors to the location to please use caution an as obvious danger exists at or near the blowhole,” the county said in a statement, also noting that it and the Maui Visitors Bureau do not promote the area as a tourist spot.
There are still questions about who owns the land at the site of the blowhole — and who could be the target of a possible lawsuit over the episode.
The county said records indicate the property is owned by Maui Land & Pineapple Company.
Kalani Ho, the company’s land and property manager, said the blowhole is on public property because it is on the shoreline. “The blowhole is below the high-water mark,” she said. “State land is below the high-water mark and obviously that’s in the water.”
The state is researching the ownership of the blowhole, said Deborah Ward, spokeswoman for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority asked Maui Land & Pineapple for permission to post warning signs near the blowhole, which the company granted, Ho said.
She said publications that promote the blowhole as a destination present constant challenges for the company. “We don’t have the resources to fence our entire property line and by state law we have to provide public access to the shoreline.”
Maui Police Lt. Chad Viela, who is overseeing the investigation, said this is the first time he’s heard of someone falling into the hole, which has an opening that’s about 3-feet wide. It’s a popular tourist destination, he said, among visitors wanting to explore the undeveloped, sparsely populated terrain of western Maui’s northern tip.
“The ocean conditions are much more treacherous out that side of west Maui,” he said. “Visitors just don’t know the dangers.”
The last time someone died at a blowhole in Hawaii was 2002 when an 18-year-old from Sylmar (Los Angeles County) fell into the Halona blowhole on Oahu and drowned.
In the latest case, Hick said she visited the site on Maui before leaving Hawaii and paid tribute to the man she was supposed to marry.
“We put flowers in the water to say goodbye and asked Hawaii to take care of him,” she said, “and to take care of me and our son.”
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)