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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 25, 2002

Nine-year-old Palolo boy saves day for drowning girl

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

The swimming pool at the Lalea condominiums was crowded on the afternoon of May 4, so no one is really sure how 4-year-old Marijka Iha got into the water. Only one person saw her once she was in.

Rory Kakuda, left, and Marijka Iha met under rather trying circumstances: She was drowning, and he saved her.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Nine-year-old Rory Kakuda was swimming from one end of Lalea pool to the other, underwater, with his eyes open. At first he didn't know what to make of what he was seeing.

"She tried to come up," the Wilson Elementary third-grader said of the girl. "She was about an inch below the surface, and she went back down. She kept trying, but she always failed."

Rory got a good look at the girl's face, and the expression he saw would haunt his dreams: Little Marijka's eyes were huge with fear. Rory had never seen a person drowning before, but he knew this girl was in trouble.

Marijka Iha needed a hero. He came in a small package.

Capt. Ben Suiso got a sinking feeling when the alarm came through at 4 p.m. that Saturday: a near-drowning at the Lalea condominiums swimming pool.

The Hawai'i Kai firefighter had just met a little girl who told him she would be swimming there that afternoon. He had talked to her at a fire safety display two hours earlier at a fair at Koko Head Elementary School, and Marijka had invited him to come to the pool and swim with her. But he explained he was on duty and would have to return to the station.

Now Suiso was afraid that when he arrived at Lalea, the tiny, damp body he would find would be the girl's.

Rory's mother, LeeAnn Kakuda, had a hard time putting it all together, at first.

She saw her son's face in the swimming pool and knew something was wrong. Then she saw a tiny body motionless in the water, and she screamed.

"Whose kid is it?" she yelled. Then she dived.

Marijka's mother, Candy Iha, dived in, too, and when the two women got Marijka out, Candy administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Someone called 911.

Later, at the hospital, Candy Iha, a nurse, remembered something strange; when she had seen her daughter in the pool, Marijka was floating face up. An unconscious person floats face down.

LeeAnn Kakuda saw her son sitting alone at the edge of the pool as the ambulance left, and went to find out what was wrong. Rory, she said, asked repeatedly whether the girl would be all right.

Rory had seen the terror in Marijka's face and knew he needed to act quickly. He swam to her and pushed her up to the surface of the water so she could breathe, he said. Only she didn't.

"I think by that time she was uncon — uh, unconscious," Rory said.

He stood on the bottom of the pool and held her up with one arm, but that didn't seem to be doing any good, and he needed a breath himself.

He surfaced, saw his mother near the pool's edge and started pushing the girl forward until he got to a part where he could touch bottom and still breathe. Then he held Marijka up until the adults grabbed her.

Rory was relieved to see Candy Iha knew how to make her daughter breathe again, but he still felt nervous and uncertain.

"I was a little scared," Rory said. "I was thinking, I never got her in time. Then the ambulance came, and I didn't know what happened next."

Fire Capt. Suiso, who had been interviewing people at the pool to determine how long Marijka had been underwater, told Rory that everything would be all right, that he was a hero.

Rory only thought of Marijka.

"That night I had a small nightmare," he said. "I saved her in the dream, but I kept replaying it, and sometimes, I wouldn't save her."

Marijka had some touch-and-go moments at Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women and Children, but she pulled through.

"She's perfect now," Iha said.

Iha said it was awhile before she realized her daughter had been rescued by a young boy. As soon as Marijka was well, they invited Rory out for pizza. And Rory said he felt a lot less nervous after that.

"I think I'll probably see her again," Rory said. "Maybe at the store or out somewhere."

Suiso said he has put Rory's name in for commendation by the city, a process that takes a few months. Meanwhile, the fire captain said Rory will be recognized for his bravery June 5 at Wilson Elementary School's annual assembly to recognize good citizenship.

Rory looks forward to seeing his classmates' reactions.

"I think they are going to be surprised," he said.

Correction: Rory Kakuda will be recognized for his bravery June 5 at Wilson Elementary School. A wrong date was included in a previous version of this story.