A kayaker who attempted to rescue the 63-year-old retired fashion executive killed by a great white shark in Maine on Monday said he thought she had been ‘hit by a boat propeller’ when he heard her screaming in the water.
Julie Dimperio Holowach was swimming in a wetsuit with her daughter near Bailey Island, Harpswell, Maine, on Monday afternoon when an eyewitness saw her disappear beneath the surface of the water before being ‘thrown into the air’.
Charlie Wemyss-Dunn, from Boston, had been kayaking nearby with his mother at the time of the deadly shark attack – the first in Maine’s history.
He recalled for GMA that he knew how serious the situation was after hearing Holowach’s screams for help.
‘My wife who was sitting outside at the time, she started screaming my name, wanting me to come [ashore]. But I knew someone was in distress out there.’
Wemyss-Dunn and his mother began paddling his way toward Holowach to help her.
‘I was about to get in the water,’ he said. ‘I still thought it could be something like a boat propeller or some sort of accident like that.’
The kayaker said his wife continued screaming at him from the shore, urging him to not get into the water.
Witnesses are speaking out after a woman was killed in a deadly great white shark attack off the Maine coast. @EvaPilgrim has the story. https://t.co/SwdNtnLXIN pic.twitter.com/4b0H1aCsoH
Wemyss-Dunn and his mother were able to take Holowach back to shore. The pair tried to keep her head above water and his mother held her hand as they paddled back.
However, Holowach, the former president of handbag designer Kipling USA, was immediately pronounced dead by paramedics upon arrival.
‘We saw what was in the water. We saw her condition,’ Wemyss-Dunn later told the Press Herald, adding that the horrific ordeal was been difficult to comprehend.
Holowach’s daughter, meanwhile, was uninjured. She was able to swim back to shore unassisted, where she collapsed on her hands and knees in the sand screaming for help.
Four years before her tragic death Ms Holowach had made enough money to retire early and live her dream life, a friend told the New York Post.
And she would have been physically fit when she died, according to Karen Murray, because she competed in triathlons.
The mother-of-three ‘decided to retire early because we all did well at VF’, Murray told the New York Post, referring to Ms Holowach’s role at Kipling, owned by the VF Corporation.
‘She made her money, and she wanted to spend time with her family.
‘She’s one of the happiest, most energetic people with the greatest disposition and zest.’
Ms Holowach, who lived between houses in New York City, Florida and Maine, ran the NYC Marathon with her daughter a few years ago, according to her Facebook page.
Prior to the deadly great white attack, Holowach had been heard ‘laughing and giggling’ in the water with her daughter.
Jeff Cooper, co-founder of H2Outfitters in Orr’s Island, rented the kayak to Mr Wemyss-Dunn.
He said Mr Wemyss-Dunn told him there was a lot of blood in the water by the time he arrived.
Mr Cooper first heard of the attack Monday at around 3.30pm over a scanner and said first responders described a woman with damage to her stomach after being ‘attacked by something’.
He drove to a small local beach to warn swimmers to get out of the water.
Another neighbor, Steve Arnold, said he saw Ms Holowach being lifted up to 18 inches above the water.
Tom Whyte, a neighbor, saw the attack from his office overlooking Mackerel Cove.
He told the Press Herald: ‘You could hear her giggling and laughing. All of a sudden Julie just started screaming for help.’
Her daughter swam towards her but ‘all of a sudden Julie went under.’
Ms Holowach’s daughter, who was uninjured, raced towards the shore and screamed for help.
Marine Patrol says Ms Holowach was pronounced dead when she was brought out of the water a short time later.
The great white shark was likely to have been in the area in search of seals, according to experts.
The coastline’s seal population has grown in recent years due to federal protection and sharks are likely to follow their main source of prey.
It is normal for sharks to be that far north, according to Greg Skomal, a great white shark expert.
He said they use Cape Cod as a ‘rest stop on a major highway as they move into northern parts’ in search of seals.
They are not known for attacking humans and experts believe the wetsuit Ms Holowach was wearing may have confused the shark into thinking she was a seal. Her daughter, who was a few feet closer to the short, was not wearing a wetsuit.
‘I think it’s generally accepted that the increase in number of seals is leading to more white sharks coming closer to shore during some months,’ Nick Whitney, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, told Maine Public Radio.
Ms Holowach retired in 2016 when she was president of Kipling, a Belgian bags and accessories company.
A year later she joined the board of directors at Sea Bags, a Portland-based company that makes and sells accessories and home decor.
Don Oakes, CEO of Sea Bags, remembered Ms Holowach as a vivacious, adventurous and creative woman who loved living in Maine.
He said she lived there during the summers from May until October.
There has never been a recorded deadly shark attack in Maine before. The only other attack involved a scuba diver in Eastport in 2010, according to Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File.
The diver was not injured and fended off a porbeagle shark with his video camera.
Officials confirmed there have been no additional sightings of the shark after the initial contact in a press conference Tuesday morning.
They called the attack ‘highly unusual’ and said beaches would not be closed.
Mr Whitney, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, said the shark that carried out the attack could now be thousands of miles away.
Patrick Keliher of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said a recovered tooth fragment confirmed a great white was responsible.
Keliher also praised the Wemyss-Dunns for going to Holawach’s aid. He said it was ‘nothing more than miraculous’ that the kayakers were able to get to the area of the attack and bring her back to shore.
Major Rob Beale of the state Marine Patrol said: ‘Julie and her husband were very respected individuals, and the community is really at a tough juncture now.’
Police confirmed the Coast Guard was in the process of sending a small boat in the rescue effort but stopped when they learned two kayakers helped bring her back to shore.
There they were met by members of the Harpswell EMS squad.
An expert said the shark may have mistaken Ms Holowach for food and now swimmers are being urged to avoid schools of fish and seals.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it was alerted to a shark attack just after 3.30pm after Holowach’s uninjured daughter, who was in a blue one piece swim suit, swam back to shore, calling for help.
One onlooker told News Center Maine Holowach had appeared to be ‘thrown up in the air by something underwater’.
Swimmers and boaters are now being urged to use caution near Bailey Island.
Dr. James Sulikowski, a professor at Arizona State University who conducts shark research in New England, said: ‘Shark interactions with humans are very rare in Maine. My guess is that the person (who was attacked) was mistaken as a food item.
‘In this area of Maine and depending on how close to shore the event occurred, my guess it was a white shark,’ he said to the Press Herald.
Sulikowksi said a seal was bitten on Sunday in Phippsburg, Maine by a shark and later died.