Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, May 24, 1999

Human factor in fatalities

TECHNOLOGY is a wondrous thing. Thanks to satellites, you can watch TV newscasts 24 hours a day and witness history in the making, like the bombing of Kosovo, from the comfort of one's living room.

You can read an online newspaper, say, in Hawaii from anywhere in the world with an Internet link-up.

And a mainland resident can tell the Honolulu Star-Bulletin exactly how she'll remember one of the eight fatalities in the Mother's Day landslide at Sacred Falls State Park.

Kathleen Denny of Oakland, Calif., did just that. Her touching and eloquent e-mail tribute to landslide victim Sara Johnson is worth sharing.

Kathleen is an airframe sheet-metal mechanic in Oakland, Calif. She belongs to the International Association of Machinists, Local 1781.

Earlier this month, she was flipping through the local paper when she saw an article titled, "Seven dead in Hawaiian landslide." She glanced at the headline and turned the page.

Kathleen forgot about it, until a co-worker asked her during a break, "Did you hear about Sara Johnson? She was in a landslide while hiking in Hawaii. They say she's still missing."

Stunned by the revelation, Kathleen grabbed the paper again -- reading and rereading the newspaper story with an aching disbelief. No, it couldn't be, Kathleen thought. Not that nice, young, effervescent woman who used to work with us.

But it was. It is.

"Sara had all the puppy-bounce and enthusiasm of a young woman just out of school," Kathleen recollects. "When she began work in the aircraft maintenance hangars two years ago, she joined a very large work force and a very small number of women mechanics. Sara was 24 and happy to be here. It never wore off.

"We crossed paths at shift change. Some days she stood on a sunny patch of asphalt just past the turnstiles and adjusted her backpack over her blue-striped work shirt. Sara grinned as we passed in the parking lot. The sun glinted off the fine ribbons braided through her single lock of hair."

KATHLEEN could have ended her correspondence there but she didn't. She looked at Sara's death philosophically and made a profound observation as to how we often observe events in the news: with an unknowing disregard for the real humanity at stake.

"Before I knew that the article was about Sara, I wasn't affected by a landslide in Hawaii. The Earth's crust moves and natural disasters happen. Sara's face changed that for me.

"It was a lesson in how we draw lines and lose the faces. How easy it is today when talking heads on television use terms like 'collateral damage' and refer to a textile factory in Yugoslavia as a military target.

"I don't know what Sara Johnson thought about the war in Yugoslavia. But she loved the outdoors, a good joke. People remember her as sweet, yet I've seen her brace her feet and blast rivets into the belly skin of a 747 passenger jet, a job that pushes the limits of strength and control.

"Where I work, where Sara worked, we fix airplanes. In Yugoslavia, U.S. planes are bombing hangars just like our workplace. People are dying there. So I think of Sara. Of the people working there. Of the people like us."

Suddenly, the other side of the world doesn't seem that far away, does it? Damn that technology.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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