HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A veteran firefighter has died following a rough water training accident off Diamond Head.
The Honolulu Fire Department says 63-year-old Clifford Rigsbee died on June 16th.
On June 14th, Rigsbee and another firefighter were apparently training on Jet Skis in rough surf at about 10:45 a.m. when something went wrong and Rigsbee went unconscious.
In a news conference Wednesday, Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves said that Rigsbee was on the Jet Ski's "sled" as an attendant when the two hit the big wave. That's when the operator looked back and noticed Rigsbee was unconscious in the water.
Rigsbee's friends were shocked to learn the veteran firefighter and accomplished athlete ran into trouble at the surf break known as "Suicides." They say Rigsbee is a nationally-ranked triathlete who is now a triathlon coach and a firefighter engineer.
"He was my primary trainer and coach and mentor. He had such a special place in my heart and with the people involved in the triathlon community and the athletic community," said Debbie Hornsby.
Rigsbee was a US National Master's Triathlon Champion. He represented the United States at the International Triathlon Union World Championship and set a record for his age group in Ironman Hawaii.
On top of being a world class athlete he was also a skilled firefighter. Before working at Station 7 in Waikiki he spent a portion of his 21 year career in the training bureau.
"He was so knowledgeable. He served in our medical branch helping teach all of the firefighters about medical techniques. His legacy will carry on for many years because of all the folks he mentored throughout the department and the skills and knowledge he bestowed upon all of us," said HFD Chief Manuel Neves.
The second firefighter involved in the crash was also from the Waikiki fire station.
"We have great concern for both of those involved," said Fire Capt. David Jenkins. "There is an inherent danger in firefighting. Although, we do take all appropriate, necessary precautions to keep ourselves safe."
Witnesses said they spotted the firefighters struggling in the waves, but weren't sure what happened.
"One of the other surfers started paddling over cause the guy had his face down the water. He was looking kind of limp," said witness Drew Farwell.
"All of a sudden you see the helicopter coming around and all the fire trucks coming in so it looked heavy. Everyone in the line up right now kinda spooked," he said.