‘He passed as a hero saving her’: Family reflects on life of Utah man who died saving girlfriend from frozen lake

Feb 3, 2024, 12:07 PM | Updated: 1:02 pm

WEST VALLEY CITY — The family of the 20-year-old deputy who died saving a young woman after they fell through ice at a Tooele County reservoir is speaking for the first time.

The sisters and mother of Emaloni Lutui said his actions were the ultimate act of love because the woman he saved was his girlfriend.

“The woman he saved, died for, was his girlfriend and we love her for loving him,” said Hinalei Fihaki, Lutui’s sister. “In the accident, we just know that she fell and he just wanted to make sure she got out of there, which he did, he just unfortunately didn’t make it out himself.”

On Monday, authorities said the couple was out for a hike at Settlement Canyon Reservoir when they fell through the ice around 7 p.m.

Knowing they had little time, Lutui pushed his girlfriend out then slipped under the icy water, and never resurfaced. His body was recovered a few hours later by search and rescue teams around 11:20 p.m.

Man who died saving woman from icy reservoir was a Salt Lake County deputy

“We know how much he loved her. He would always talk about her to us, so we want to honor and respect the way that this all happened even though it’s not something that we ever wanted or imagined,” Fihaki said. “He passed as a hero saving her.”

Family members are not releasing his girlfriend’s name to respect her privacy during this difficult time.

Lutui’s family was not surprised to learn of his heroic actions. They said he lived a life of service.

“He was really the glue to keeping us all together. As his (older) sisters, we were supposed to be his keepers, but I feel like he was really our keeper,” Fihaki said.

From childhood, family members said Lutui, known affectionately as “Loni,” was always interested in helping others. Lutui’s mother, Maopa Tonga, said his elementary school in Portland, Oregon, had a plaque made for him because of his service to his classmates and teachers.

In high school, he became interested in public service when he joined JROTC. After graduating from Taylorsville High School he joined the Marine Corps. Unfortunately, pandemic restrictions and illness kept him from moving forward shortly after enlisting. His family said he was honorably discharged.

However, Lutui’s desire for a life in public service persevered and his family said he found his true passion closer to home.

“He’s always been… determined,” Tonga said. “He still wanted to be able to serve.”

Lutui graduated from the sheriff’s academy just a few weeks before his death. He joined the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office and was continuing his training in the county jail, according to Sheriff Rosie Rivera.

Lutui’s greatest love was his family. Though he was the fourth of six siblings, his three sisters said he was more like a big brother who took an interest in their lives and was always checking on them.

“He really set the tone for our little brother. As sisters, we would love to find someone for ourselves like him one day. We are really incredibly proud of him,” Fihaki said.

Lutui’s sisters say he was thrilled when he became a father two years ago. Though his relationship with his son’s mother didn’t work out, they remained close friends, and Lutui was a devoted father.

“He truly lived in his purpose which was service,” said Litia Fihaki, Lutui’s oldest sister. “He was super engaged with each and every one of us. He would always call and ask if we needed anything.”

Lutui’s family is clinging to their faith as they grieve his loss.

“I told my girls Loni would want us to do things with love,” said Tonga. “I’m heartbroken but I’m at peace. I’m at peace knowing he’s watching us and he’s at a better place.”

“I think God wanted him to come back home, maybe it was his time to go.” Tonga continued.

Lutui’s family also expressed their gratitude for the outpouring of love and support and the efforts of search and rescue teams, including the Tooele City Police Department.

“We thank them for helping us ensure he can have a proper burial,” Hinalei Fihaki said.

A GoFundMe* has been set up to assist with funeral expenses.

*KSL TV does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisers and otherwise proceed at your own risk.

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‘He passed as a hero saving her’: Family reflects on life of Utah man who died saving girlfriend from frozen lake