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A Tale of Horror in Hawaiian Waters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a nightmare in Hawaii that Mark Monazzami can never forget . . . no matter how hard he tries.

He emerged from the hospital Thursday and planned to join the search for his bride’s body in the beautiful waters off Maui. It was there, he said, that she bled to death after the shark took off her arm.

There are no eyewitnesses to the attack and no body. But there are few doubters in Hawaii, where two other shark attacks have been reported recently, and where tiger sharks were hunted earlier in the decade to reduce the threat of strikes on humans.

Most of all, there is Monazzami’s story, in which a tiny kayak with the two honeymooners aboard was pitted against howling trade winds. Maui police say that at this point they have no reason to doubt the story, and they hope others will pay heed.

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A naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, Manouchehr Monazzami-Taghadomi, 39, who goes by Mark, has lived in California for 20 years. He had visited and corresponded with Nahid Davoodabai, a 29-year-old Iranian gynecologist, often in recent years. He finally asked her to marry him in December of 1997.

She accepted, and the two took their vows that winter in Iran. She remained for several months to sell her clinic. He returned to Sunnyvale, where he is employed by ESG Consulting of San Francisco, under contract with United Airlines. He began the paperwork his wife would need when she emigrated.

When that finally happened last summer, they planned a spring honeymoon to the scenic shores of Lahaina, Maui. Monazzami, a frequent visitor to Hawaii, wanted to treat his wife to a week in paradise.

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Genice Jacobs, a colleague of Monazzami’s at ESG Consulting, said the couple were looking forward to their romantic getaway. “He’s just a really sweet guy, and if you looked in his eyes, all you could see was love and passion for his wife.”

On March 13, they checked into a small condominium resort just beyond the beach on the popular corridor between Kaanapali and Kapalua, north of Lahaina.

In an interview from his hospital bed this week, Monazzami recalled how they lounged in the sun, snorkeled and took long walks on the beach.

Others were paddling around on kayaks and it looked like fun, Monazzami said, so they decided to give it a try. They reserved a two-seat hard-plastic ocean kayak at a shop on March 17 and picked it up the next morning.

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Unlike kayaks in which paddlers sit inside the shell, the seats of this version are on the exterior of molded plastic bodies. The vessel is tippy in choppy waters but easy to maneuver and fast. In warm coastal waters, it is an ideal craft.

Wearing only swimsuits and life jackets, they set out about noon in an area south of Lahaina called Ukumehame. The weather was fine and their kayak glided swiftly across the ocean with little effort.

Their first paddle was fairly brief. The second was a little longer. In all, they had paddled for about three hours, Monazzami said, before taking a long rest on the beach.

Monazzami’s arms were weary and he was content to remain on the beach, he said, but his wife persuaded him to climb aboard the kayak one more time. It was 4 p.m., and the water immediately beyond the beach was still relatively calm.

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Offshore, a small-craft advisory had been issued to boaters. From the beach, a keen and knowing eye might have seen the telltale “wind line” beyond the area protected by the mountains.

More Than a Mile Offshore

Off they went, not getting very far, Monazzami said, before a big wind “came out of nowhere” and began pushing them farther from the beach. Within a short time, they were more than a mile offshore.

Realizing they were in trouble, they waved their paddles and screamed for help. No one saw or heard.

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The sun began to set.

Since their kayak was rented on an unlimited basis, payable on return, and no one was expecting them ashore, Monazzami realized that their chances of rescue that night were slim.

Davoodabai asked her husband if they were going to die. He reassured her, he said, that if they could last through the night, perhaps they could flag down someone on a boat at daybreak.

The chop made it difficult to keep the vessel upright, especially with the onset of darkness. They began to capsize frequently but soon found that it felt warmer in the water anyway. Temperatures above and below the surface were about the same, in the low to mid-70s, but in the water they were out of the wind.

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“I wanted to stay on the kayak to make it easier for someone to see us,” Monazzami said. “But I was shivering and cold, and my wife begged me to come in the water, so I went in and every wave that washed over us just felt so good.”

At some point during the night, however, Monazzami became concerned about the possibility of a shark attack, and said so to his wife. Her response, he said, was that being warm was more important than worrying about sharks.

Moments later, he said, it was Davoodabai who cried out, “Shark!”

In an instant, she was pulled under. She surfaced almost immediately, complaining with remarkable calm that her left arm was missing. He reached out to help her and clutched at the wound near her shoulder, but all he could feel was tissue and flesh. Blood rushed through his fingers.

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Holding her by the right arm, he climbed back onto the vessel and pulled her aboard. He tried to stop the bleeding using the string from his swim trunks as a tourniquet, but the damage was too extensive.

She drifted in and out of consciousness, at one point telling her husband that she could feel her fingers. “I said, ‘No, honey, you don’t have an arm,’ ” Monazzami said. “She said, ‘I swear to God I can feel my fingers.’ ”

About 30 minutes passed before Davoodabai started feeling severe pain, Monazzami said. “She started screaming from the bottom of her heart, and I was going crazy because I couldn’t do anything to help her.”

Suddenly, the screaming stopped. Davoodabai was dead. Dizzy from grief and exhaustion, Monazzami shifted his weight and his kayak capsized again. He let go of her body, and she drifted into the blackness.

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Monazzami said he climbed back onto the kayak. No longer caring if he lived or died, he said, he stretched out and let the current take him where it may.

Vessel Hit Rocky Beach

He awoke to the sound of his vessel bumping against a rocky shore. Then a wave flipped the kayak and spilled Monazzami into the water. He lost his shorts struggling to get himself on the beach.

The current had deposited him on Kahoolawe, a small island 12 miles southwest of Maui. The island, until a few years ago used for regular target practice by the Navy, has been uninhabited for years. Live ordnance litters the island’s interior.

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It was the morning of March 19 when he landed. One of the first things he saw were military helicopters buzzing over the mountaintops.

Weary and feeling faint for lack of food and water, he spent most of the day resting on the beach, covering himself with trash in an attempt to get out of the wind, vowing to climb the mountain on Saturday morning.

The next day, he said, he found a pair of old sandals. “I spent five or six hours hiking. . . . I went all the way to the top of the mountain and . . . nothing.”

Monazzami said he never ate, but it rained Saturday and he drank from pools formed in the rocks. “Before that I was very close to drinking sea water,” he said.

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Phone Found in Military Bunker

On the way back down the mountain late Saturday afternoon, he got lost and was startled to discover a satellite dish atop an old military bunker.

It was dark by the time he reached the building, but it afforded him some protection until morning. At daybreak Sunday, Monazzami fiddled with some of the equipment he found in the bunker but found all of it useless. Until he found the phone.

It was concealed in a small casing on the wall. He followed the wire to a jack and plugged in the line. There was a dial tone. He dialed 911.

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“The guy answered and that’s when I burst [into tears],” Monazzami said. “All the pain of not having my wife hit me.”

Keith Keau, enforcement chief for the Maui division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, was involved in the rescue effort. “When we found him he was totally dehydrated and in shock.”

Monazzami’s kayak was retrieved from a nearby beach Monday and not found to have any damage “other than scratches and dents caused by the rocks,” Keau said.

On Wednesday afternoon, while searching for the body off the shore of Kahoolawe, investigators from the Maui County Police Department found a blue life jacket “similar to the one reportedly worn by Davoodabai.”

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Asked if the vest had tooth marks or bloodstains on it, Lt. Glenn Cuomo would only say, “It’s still being examined.”

The case is being treated as a missing-person investigation by the criminal investigations division of the Police Department, according to Capt. Victor Tengan. “That’s just standard procedure,” he explained, adding that at this point there is no reason to doubt Monazzami’s story.

John Naughton, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist and shark expert based in Honolulu, said it would not be surprising for a shark to strike a lifeless body repeatedly, freeing a life vest.

Monazzami was discharged from the hospital Thursday afternoon and planned to join police in the search for his wife’s body.

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“The sad part about it is, it didn’t have to happen,” he said. “Nobody told us how dangerous it was out there.”

Andrea Smith, manager of Extreme Sports Maui, which rented the kayak to Monazzami and his wife, said: “We tell everybody to stay inside the wind line and within the sheltered areas. And Mr. Monazzami was told all this.”

It’s the second incident statewide this year involving kayakers getting swept to sea but the first such incident in at least five years in Maui, Tengan said.

The apparent attack on Davoodabai is the third shark attack this month.

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On the morning of March 5, Maui resident Robin Knutson, 29, was bitten in the leg while swimming 300 yards off Kaanapali with her boyfriend. She remains hospitalized with extensive injuries and faces possible amputation.

Three days later, an Arizona tourist, Jonathan Allen, 18, was bitten while bodyboarding off Kauai. He suffered only minor injuries and was treated and released.

The first two attacks were blamed on tiger sharks, the top predator in Hawaiian waters. Tiger sharks can measure 20 feet or longer. They feed primarily during the night or at dawn or dusk on reef fish and sea turtles. They typically move into deeper water during the day.

While shark attacks on swimmers and surfers in Hawaii average about two per year, the state hasn’t had a full-blown shark scare since 1992-93, when a series of attacks within a very short span off Oahu led to the organization of a state task force and the first shark control program since the mid-1970s.

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Naughton, a member of the task force, said the state, using baited hooks, removed 11 large tiger sharks amid the scare six years ago. Freelance hunters, mostly resident surfers, are believed to have removed another 70 or so tiger sharks from near-shore waters surrounding the island of Oahu, where most of the attacks took place.

“Now we’re getting calls again from people wondering what we’re going to do in light of the recent attacks,” Naughton said. “They’re wondering if we’re going to remove any more.”

The answer right now is no, he said, adding that he believes Hawaii’s waters remain safe for those who swim or surf responsibly--in daylight hours and away from murky areas such as river mouths, which often attract feeding sharks.

He pointed out that the two recent attacks--on the swimmer and kayaker--involved “high-risk” circumstances. In the first instance, the swimmer had ventured way offshore, and witnesses said she was swimming toward a small pod of humpback whales.

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“I had heard there was an injured whale in the area and went up immediately after the attack and we did see an injured whale a mile or so from where the attack took place,” he said.

“I recommended closing the beaches until the whale was out of the area because we know from aerial work that if you have an injured whale, you usually have a few large tiger sharks shadowing the whale.”

As for the most recent instance, Naughton said, “we have made some recommendations to people who rent kayaks that they should certainly warn tourists about the possible dangers, and not to rent them when there are hazardous winds and large surf.”

As for those who find themselves adrift in a kayak in the middle of the night, Naughton cautioned, “Stay on the vessel at all costs.”

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