Tuesday, May 11, 1999


By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Police tape keeps Sacred Falls closed to the public, but
people have turned the sign into a makeshift memorial.

Sacred Falls
death toll
rises to eight

Dangerous conditions delay
the search for a missing woman
who was at the landslide scene

List of victims

By Christine Donnelly
and Gregg K. Kakesako


THE apparent death toll from the Sacred Falls landslide climbed to eight this morning with the death at Queen's Hospital of former Navy Petty Officer Mark Johnson, 29.

A Pearl Harbor spokesman said Johnson had been a radioman at Barbers Point Naval Air Station. His university graduation was held yesterday.

State officials met this morning to try to determine a way to safely recover the body of a 24-year-old California woman buried under rocks and rubble at Sacred Falls.

And the popular Windward Oahu tourist attraction, which draws more than 55,000 people annually, remains closed following an assessment by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which manages Hawaii's park system.

Sarah Johnson, of Hayward, Calif., who hiked the nearly three-mile trail with her 27-year-old boyfriend, is now believed to have been killed in the gorge. Her boyfriend is hospitalized with a compound fracture to his foot.

The two apparently were sitting by a pool at the base of the 80-foot waterfall when the rocks and boulders started falling Sunday afternoon.

Twelve remain hospitalized, including Sarah Johnson's boyfriend.

"The situation is that we're very sure no one's alive in there, and we cannot put our teams at risk by sending them in right away for a body," said Timothy Johns, chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which is in charge of the effort.

Johns said he would meet today with fire rescue officials, geologists and other experts.

The meeting, which also included officials from the Hawaii state Department of Defense, was to determine how to safely remove Johnson's body without endangering the lives of recovery workers.

State officials are exploring the possibility of asking the military to widen the trail and help with the removal of the body as well as divers to search the floor of the falls.

State conservation enforcement officers also spent part of the day at Sacred Falls to assess the situation and the status of falling boulders.

"We may not be able to get in (today), or even the next day," said Johns. "It's hard to accept, but it's too dangerous, with rocks the size of backpacks still falling from 600 feet."

Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi said he expected heavy equipment would be needed to remove debris before reaching the woman, who was not visible during either ground or air searches yesterday. But using such equipment could further destabilize the already hazardous area. No rescue workers were injured by falling rocks yesterday, but there were close calls, he said.

Leonardi said authority over the operation had been transferred to the Department of Land and Natural Resources because it was now a recovery, rather than rescue, operation. Earlier yesterday, Leonardi had thought all bodies were recovered and suspended the search. He readied crews to go back in after learning of the missing woman but ultimately decided it was too risky to go back in, especially since the earlier sweeps had yielded no sign of her.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
The Fire Department's rescue helicopter takes off after
refueling at Sacred Falls State Park.

Including the missing woman, the toll is now eight dead and at least 32 injured.

Leonardi said he doubted there were any other victims besides those. "I never say never, especially after today, but I seriously doubt it."

Meanwhile, the popular Hauula park has been closed indefinitely, as has the state hiking trail at Maakua Gulch the next valley over. A new gate also was to be erected to close Sacred Falls parking lot and fencing was to be erected in other areas to keep the public out.

Curt Cottrell, head of DLNR's trail program, spent the morning in Maakua Gulch surveying the narrow gorge trail.

Enforcement officers will be posted around the clock to enforce the closure and trespassers could face up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Johns said it was too early to say whether Sacred Falls, the site of many less serious mishaps over the years, would be closed permanently. "That's something we'll have to look at, but later. Our first priority is to get all the victims recovered."

Two geologists who surveyed the damage after Sunday's slide said they could not have predicted it. "I specifically asked that question: "If you had been flying over an hour before this happened could you have predicted that it was about to occur?' They both said no."

State geologist Glenn Bauer said the catastrophe started about 800 feet up the Kaneohe side of the cliff and slightly downstream of the falls.

A task force would be formed to review the safety of all state hiking trails, including Sacred Falls, Johns said. Signs are posted at the park and along the trail warning of landslide danger, but he was not sure how many there are. The attorney general's office is trying to determine the state's liability in event of a lawsuit, he said.

Meanwhile, a small memorial has sprung up at the park entrance, with a ti leaf lei draping the park sign and bouquets of ginger, bougainvillea and bird of paradise scattered beneath.

"People come here because it's beautiful. It's Hawaii. (They don't) expect to die," said one area resident who did not want her name used.

Star-Bulletin reporters Jaymes K. Song and Craig Gima contributed to this report.

Among the dead

The Honolulu medical examiner has identified the dead as:

Bullet Aaron Bann, 31, of Placentia, Calif.
Bullet Donna Forsch, 38, of Elk Grove, Calif.
Bullet Scott Huling, 36, stationed at Hickam Air Force Base.
Bullet Jen Johnson, 24, West Hills, Calif.
Bullet Mark Johnson, 29, based at Barbers Point Naval Air Station.
Bullet Danielle Williams, 7, of Honolulu.
Bullet Teri Zerebeski, 42, of Sherwood Park, Alberta.

Missing, believed dead

Sarah Johnson, 24, of Hayward, Calif.

The injured

No official list of injured survivors from Sunday's Sacred Falls disaster will be released, said Toby Clairmont, Oahu Civil Defense commissioner.

"We won't release the list," he said. This is to protect victims' privacy, Clairmont said.

The data is being used by the Red Cross to assist communication between victims and families, he said.

Bullet Queen's Medical Center had six still hospitalized: a woman, 28, fair condition; boy, 9, fair; boy, 2, fair; woman, 30, fair; girl, 9, fair; woman, 50, fair.
Bullet Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children had two: boys, 7 and 9, conditions not released.
Bullet Castle Medical Center had two: Whitney Phillips, 21, of Salt Lake City, stable; man, 27, stable.
Bullet Kuakini Medical Center had two: a man, 39, guarded; woman, 31, guarded.

Victim update line

With the tragedy reported in the national news, a victim update line has received more than 120 calls. The number is:

Bullet Mainland and Neighbor Islands: 1-800-898-2353.
Bullet On Oahu: 523-4122.

E-mail to City Desk

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