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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mother of swimmer missing on Big Island fears the worst

By John Burnett
Hawaii Tribune-Herald

HILO Hawaii County fire rescue personnel searched a second day yesterday for a 24-year-old California man who disappeared Tuesday while swimming with friends at Boiling Pots State Park.

Fire Capt. Richard Fong of Waiakea Rescue Co. 2 said a county helicopter and divers searched for Ryan Jay Ritzel of Soquel, Calif.

"We plan on being out here as long as it's lit enough for us to see, and we'll continue our search at first light Thursday and Friday, if necessary," Fong said late yesterday afternoon.

Fong said that rescuers found no sign of Ritzel, a dishwasher on the Pride of America cruise ship.

"Not even his shorts or slippers or anything," he said.

Officials closed the park to the public as rescuers used the parking lot as a staging area. Fong said that he recalled the divers due to torrential rain that caused extreme rapids and poor visibility.

"It started to rain and the river is swollen and the visibility is getting worse, so we pulled 'em out and are doing more riverbank searches," he said. "Even though we're doing riverbank searches, it's slippery and wet. Pretty much the worst conditions you could ask for."

Fong said rescuers searched the entire length of the Wailuku River below Boiling Pots, and the shoreline where the treacherous current empties into the ocean.

"We had our helicopter search all the way down to the breakwall and even to Honolii, the shoreline areas, Bayfront and still, negative findings," he said.

Fong said that Ritzel and five shipmates took a cab from the Port of Hilo to the popular park above Hilo Medical Center, "apparently just to swim."

Ritzel's mother, Julie Brusca of Santa Clara, Calif., said by phone yesterday that her son is "not a strong swimmer" and fears the worst.

"My understanding is that the other guys were on the rocks, Ryan was in the water, they turned back, and he was gone," she said.

Brusca described Ritzel as "the sweetest boy in the world."

"I've never met somebody who was so open to people," she said.

She also called her son "a talented artist."

"He can just freehand draw a face and you just know exactly who it is," Brusca said. "He had this idea of going to art school but he kept not doing it. He wanted to open up this business selling T-shirts that had the drawings that he had done."

She said that Ritzel had been aboard the cruise ship for less than a month.

"He left March 13 for Hawaii and he had a week of training. He thought he was going to be a bartender," she said. "I think he thought it was ... this generation's version of, like, the Alaska Pipeline back in the '70s, or like people who go crabbing.

"He said it would be like crabbing, only less dangerous," she added and started to cry.

Fong said that Boiling Pots, which is fed by Peepee Falls, becomes extremely dangerous during mauka rains that turn the Wailuku which means "waters of destruction" in Hawaiian into roiling rapids.

"We've been here many times before and we've warned the public many times before, and I guess the more you warn them, the more they want to take the challenge," he said.