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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 14, 2003

Bethany's father glad to be doing fund raiser and not her funeral

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

PRINCEVILLE, Kaua'i — Hanalei is a small community, and if you sit down in public with Tom Hamilton, you can expect to get interrupted.

Surfing is a tradition for Tom Hamilton's family, including daughter Bethany, whose left arm was bitten off by a tiger shark.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

He has lived in this community for 31 years, after all. But more important of late, he is Bethany Hamilton's dad.

His 13-year-old daughter, whose left arm was bitten off by a 14-foot tiger shark two weeks ago, is the most sought-after interview since former POW Jessica Lynch. At least that's what "Today" show host Matt Lauer told him.

While Hamilton was sitting with a reporter yesterday at the Princeville Shopping Center, an old friend paused to grip Hamilton's big hand and grasp his forearm. They made eye contact, but did not exchange words. It wasn't necessary. Meanwhile, a woman with an armload of groceries waited politely to give her best wishes. Another woman stopped by to assure him she'll see him at a benefit for Bethany tomorrow .

When the woman left, Hamilton dropped a reminder of how close to tragedy the shark attack came.

"We're just so happy we're doing a benefit, and we're not doing a funeral," he said.

Hamilton came to Hawai'i in 1972 because his best friend in Vietnam was Hawaiian and suggested he go to Kaua'i to see the real Hawai'i. He never left.

Hanalei is a resort community, an old Hawaiian community, a hippie community, and a surfing community set around one of the state's largest bays, surrounded by taro fields and backed by amazing green mountains streaked with waterfalls.

How to donate or leave a message

• Contact Bethany Hamilton by e-mail at bethanyhamilton@mac.com. Send cards, messages or donations to Bethany Hamilton, in care of Hanalei Surf Co., P.O. Box 790, Hanalei, HI 96714. Her family said Bethany has started reading and responding to some of the thousands of messages she has received.

• Monetary donations payable to "Friends of Bethany Hamilton" may be dropped off at any branch of First Hawaiian Bank, or mailed to the bank's Lihu'e branch at 4423 Rice St., Lihu'e, HI, 96766.

• A Web site at www.bethanyhamilton.com contains photos, updates on her condition and places to leave comments.

• A fund-raising event is scheduled tomorrow at the Marriott Kaua'i resort in Nawiliwili, with food, entertainment and a silent auction to raise money for Bethany's rehabilitation expenses. To donate silent auction items, contact Patrice Pendarvis at patrice@patricependarvis.com.

Hamilton, 55, a waiter at the Princeville Hotel, drives a well-used van with surf racks. He surfs, his wife Cheri surfs, their sons Noah, 21, and Tim, 17, surf, and Bethany surfs. It's a family tradition.

"Our friend Bobo says Bethany has salt water in her veins, and that's pretty much true. She was just tiny when my wife and I took her out. I would push her on a longboard and my wife would catch her," Hamilton said. "She was always in the water."

In time, Bethany became the best female surfer on the island. She is a fervent Christian, and before each meet she would pray that her competitors would surf well. And then she'd go out and try to surf better.

She was winning so many contests and beginning to spend so much time away from home that her family took her out of regular public school and put her into a Department of Education online charter school, the Myron B. Thompson Academy, which allowed her to keep up with schoolwork while traveling.

On Oct. 31, she and her best friend, Alana Blanchard, and Blanchard's dad Holt went surfing at dawn at the Ha'ena reef called Tunnels.

Bethany felt a tug on her left arm — a jerking — and when she looked down, she saw the snout of a huge, gray shark. When the predator let go, it took almost all of her left arm and a big chunk of her red-white-and-blue board. She called to Holt Blanchard, who thought at first that she was joking, but then saw blood in the water.

Tom Hamilton said Blanchard pushed as his daughter held on to her board with her remaining hand and rode the whitewater onto the shallow reef. Blanchard used a surfboard leash as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.

Hamilton said Bethany has a clear recollection of the events.

"She prayed, and she passed out (briefly) once, but she remembers it all," her dad said.

One of the first people she talked to after her initial surgery at Wilcox Memorial Hospital that Friday was Michael Coots, who was 18 when he lost his lower leg to a shark on the other side of the island Oct. 28, 1997. The two had known each other before Bethany's shark attack.

Then came the onslaught. The cell phones never stopped ringing — friends, well-wishers, and media from across the country, even Oprah. Friends and family besieged the hospital. The hospital public relations office and Bethany's major surfing sponsor, Rip Curl, stepped in to try to control access, with limited success.

As the time came for Bethany to leave the hospital, the family realized they couldn't go home.

"Neighbors said there were strange cars coming down the street," Hamilton said, probably media.

Friends offered a quiet beach house in Anahola, and the Hamilton clan got some privacy for a few days. "We got to talk about things. We slept a whole lot. We didn't see anybody except for grandma," Hamilton said.

Bethany has been typically upbeat, he said. She visited other patients in the hospital, and when a disabled counselor arrived to talk with the family, Bethany offered to help pay for his treatment out of whatever money is raised for her own recovery. He turned her down.

Hamilton, whose family has health insurance, said he has only a limited idea how much money is being raised for his daughter, although he was preparing to sign contracts with assorted media to tell Bethany's story. Most of the details are being handled by her sponsor, an agent arranged by her sponsor, and an accountant volunteering his time.

Some contributions are tied directly to specific things, such as prosthetic devices, which can be expensive and will need to be regularly replaced because Bethany is still growing.

Hamilton said the family has enough to worry about without dealing directly with media arrangements, contracts and fund- raising. "I'm just so glad we're insulated from it," he said.

He said he hopes there is enough money to help Bethany with schooling. "A lot of this goes to her future," he said.

Hamilton said he expects that future to be a good one.

"She wants to get back in the water," and she has been offered assistance in learning one-armed swimming and surfing techniques.

"She has always been exceptionally talented. She's got the drive and the motivation. She wants to go back to the main events" in surfing, he said, although the family recognizes there may be setbacks as she relearns surfing.

"It could be a frustration for her. She's always been the girl to beat here on Kaua'i."

Bethany also has expressed an interest in playing more soccer and she jokes about her missing arm.

"She said she wants to play soccer again because she'd only have one chance of getting a hand ball," Hamilton said.

Bethany will remain out of the public eye for another week or so, after which the family expects she will be able to begin responding to a few of the dozens of requests for interviews and personal appearances.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.