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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 30, 2005

Needlefish victim recalls attack

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

Tonga Piu Loumoli, 19, shows where a large crocodile needlefish impaled him as he was night-diving off Kahana Bay near Ka'a'awa. At left is his mother, Paea Loumoli, and at right is friend Braven Rivera, who helped him get back to shore after the attack.

Tonga Piu Loumoli thought this night-diving trip would be like the dozens of others over the past few years. It was, until he and his fishing buddy were preparing to go back to shore.

Suddenly, a blue crocodile needlefish darted at Loumoli, impaling him in the stomach.

"When I looked down, all I saw was eyes and teeth, and it drove right through my chest," Loumoli, 19, said yesterday at The Queen's Medical Center.

That night — July 21 — Loumoli was taken to Queen's in serious condition and underwent surgery for damage to his liver. Loumoli remained in intensive care for three days but has recovered and was released yesterday, said hospital spokeswoman Kara Hughes.

For all his pain and suffering, Loumoli may have been fortunate.

Needlefish attacks on humans are rare, but the ones that do occur often result in death, said John E. Randall, senior ichthyologist at the Bishop Museum.

The crocodile needlefish, more commonly known as a hound needlefish, is long and slender and known to skip along the surface of the water. It is often referred to as a "living spear" because of its sharp snout. It grows to at least 4 feet long.

But, Randall said, "Danger would never be during the day, but at night when you're at the surface with a light."

That's the situation Loumoli and his friend Braven Rivera, 44, found themselves in about 11:30 p.m. They had been spearfishing in 6 to 8 feet of water off Kahana Bay near Ka'a'awa with two other friends.

After their two friends went back to shore, Loumoli and Rivera prepared to take back their dinghy.

They were still in the water when a 4- to 5-foot fish swam past Loumoli's face. "It went real fast across us, and it took a little turn," he said.

Armed with a flashlight, Loumoli tried to figure out what type of fish it was. Initially, he thought it was a barracuda.

The fish then swam directly for Loumoli and skewered his abdomen, then wiggled its way back out.

"I stood there like two seconds staring, then I felt this tremendous pain in my chest. I couldn't speak," Loumoli said.

He initially believed it was the shiny silver necklace he was wearing that attracted the fish, but in hindsight said it was possibly his flashlight that lured the fish his way.

Loumoli managed to tell his friend he'd "been hit" but Rivera wasn't sure of his injuries, or whether Loumoli was even bleeding. "I pulled the flashlight and I saw the blood shooting out," Rivera said.

Rivera managed to stabilize their dinghy so Loumoli could pull himself in. "I jumped in the boat. I was breathing hard. I said to myself, 'Lord, if it's your will, let it be done,' " said Loumoli.

The pain felt like a sledgehammer hitting him in the chest, he said.

With the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Loumoli in the dinghy, Rivera pulled the boat about a quarter mile to shore. He then began to frantically search a nearby neighborhood for help.

After unsuccessfully attempting to get help from a resident, Rivera saw a police officer. "I was praying for a cop to come around the corner," Rivera said.

The officer made an emergency call, and a little while later, Loumoli was rushed by ambulance to Queen's. "By then I didn't have feeling in my right leg and left arm," Loumoli said.

It was a little after 11 p.m. when Loumoli's mother, Paea, received a phone call from the hospital. "They told me he's here (Queen's) and there were no other details. I knew it was serious, very much," she said.

Loumoli was undergoing emergency surgery when Paea Loumoli and her husband arrived at the hospital. Two, three, then four hours passed as the Loumolis waited.

It was after 4 a.m. when Loumoli was wheeled out to see his parents. "His eyes were closed and he looked so pale," said his mother.

A week later, Loumoli has recovered well but bears a wound that stretches from mid-chest to lower abdomen. He said he is still in a lot of pain, especially when he moves in certain ways.

"Feels like my guts are coming out," he said.

Among the mementos of his fishing trip gone awry are the silver necklace and a tiny, light blue tooth left behind by the fish — a keepsake Loumoli now stores in a jar.

His mom said she doesn't want him to go diving ever again — but she never really approved when he started three or four years ago. "It's a hobby that really scares me to death," she said.

Loumoli is unsure if he will ever go back out in the water.

"It's not clear right now," he said. "It's another world down there."