Hurricane Irma, the strongest storm to ever come from the Atlantic, has already claimed the lives of 10 people. Its first victim was just 16 years old.
Zander Venezia, a Barbados native, was described as “a good, funny kid” who “was always joking” around with friends and family.
As “one of Barbados’ most talented junior pros,” according to Surfline, Venezia couldn’t wait to surf the incoming swell from Hurricane Irma. He was flanked by tons of professional surfers who flew to the island with one goal in mind: catching the best, biggest wave they could find.
However, like any big swell, this was a dangerous one.
Six-time national surfing champion Mark Holder told Barbados Today [emphasis added]:
“That wave only breaks when you have hurricane swells and it breaks in a different direction, so that swell breaks like once in a blue moon. When it is breaking guys go there because it is a beautiful wave, but it is pretty dangerous. In my 45 years I have never surfed that break, I surf at … other places around the island, but I never surf that break because it is pretty dangerous.
The way the waves are coming in today … you have to be on your ‘A’ game. You must know what you are doing because out here is not easy. If you are not a professional today is a day you should sit down and watch.”
But Holder continued, stressing that Venezia’s skill level was on par with what it takes to surf those waves — the 16-year-old was, by all accounts, a professional.
Unfortunately, something went awry.
A fellow surfer that day, flight attendant Shawn Latino, told Barbados Today:
“We were surfing this secret spot, it’s a heavy wave and not really a safe wave but we were all surfing, having the best time of our lives, getting the best waves you can possibly imagine. The young kid caught a wave and rode it on the inside and he was paddling back outside and another wave came and picked him up and his head hit the reef.”
Tragically, when the following wave “picked him up,” it ended in his death.
According to Surfline, some surfers believed Venezia had broken his neck on the reef and was then held down by the influx of big waves. However, according to autopsy reports obtained by the Daily Mail, the 16-year-old did not suffer any fractures.
The report states he was knocked unconscious underwater and subsequently drowned.
His father, Louis Venezia, was among the several surfers who tried to save him.
Latino said trying to rescue the boy was incredibly challenging — especially considering they were still in the dangerous waters:
“One of the professional surfers was the first to get to him and he actually put the kid on his board and started performing CPR and then quite a few of us came and I took over in the water was well. We all worked together and brought him in and we worked on him until the ambulance came.”
Local pro-turned-surf instructor Alan Burke told Surfline they worked on reviving him for over an hour:
“[Pro surfers] Nathan Florence, Dylan Graves, and the paramedics continued to try and revive him. But once they got him to the hospital, Zander was breathing, but not responsive. From the time Nathan got to him in the water to when they arrived at the hospital, it was about 75 minutes of nonstop CPR.”
Tragically, Venezia was pronounced dead.
Burke, who is also a family friend of Venezia, told Surfline the entire community is absolutely devastated:
“I feel empty, we are in shambles over here. I wasn’t there [at the spot], but my wife has been with the Venezia family at the hospital. […]
He was one of my sons’ best friends, and like a son to me. We just traveled the whole East Coast together, surfing that last Outer Banks swell together. Zander was such a good, funny kid. He was always joking, and he just loved surfing. He was so jovial, such a joy to be around. I just can’t believe he’s gone. I’m a mess, man. We’re all a mess over here.”
Members of the surfing community haven’t taken his loss lightly. Even world-class surfer Kelly Slater mourned Venezia’s death:
@zandervenezia By all accounts you were as good a friend as you were a surfer…thank you for the impact you had on those around you for a life lived with joy and purpose. And thank you for taking this photo with me when you were 5. I will cherish it always. @louis_venezia sorry doesn’t cover it. Words cannot suffice for your family and the loss of a son. The grief felt by so many is felt around this surfing work of ours. Much love to my #BarbadosFamily. #GoneTooSoon #ZanderVenezia •For those who don’t know, Zander passed away while surfing today after catching what he said was the best wave of his life. He was knocked unconscious when he hit his head on the reef, possibly braking his neck and taking a long hold down for a number of waves. Friends and fellow surfers aided in a rescue attempt but his injuries were greater than could be addressed making him the first victim, by default, of #HurricaneIrma.
His caption read, in part:
[Venezia,] By all accounts you were as good a friend as you were a surfer…thank you for the impact you had on those around you for a life lived with joy and purpose. And thank you for taking this photo with me when you were 5. I will cherish it always. [Louis Venezia,] sorry doesn’t cover it. Words cannot suffice for your family and the loss of a son. The grief felt by so many is felt around this surfing work of ours. Much love to my #BarbadosFamily. #GoneTooSoon #ZanderVenezia […] Friends and fellow surfers aided in a rescue attempt but his injuries were greater than could be addressed making him the first victim, by default, of #HurricaneIrma.
Though Hurricane Irma has only just begun wreaking chaos on land, its first victim, like all others, will be greatly missed.
According to Burke, Venezia’s last words were, “I just got the best wave of my life!”