Remembering the Tragedy on Waialeale
on the mountain
It was a chance to see the beauty of Kauai from the air.
But on the slopes of Mount Waialeale, thick and deadly
clouds were gathering, and a helicopter with six people
aboard fell victim to the elements.
Read the news story from 1998By Anthony Sommer
LIHUE -- Andrew Yang's parents brought the 10-year-old's ashes back to Kauai this week to scatter over a 100-foot-long scar halfway up the southeast flank of Mount Waialeale, where he died one year ago today.
Ohana Helicopters -- including the crew that flew the Yangs on their memorial mission -- were going to "stand down" this afternoon to remember pilot Chuck Lowe and talk about flying safety.
Sam Lee Jr., who became a hero taking enormous risks to recover bodies from the mountainside, was back on duty aboard the rescue fire truck at the Lihue Fire Station today. Ken D'Attilio, the flamboyant Air-1 rescue pilot who also took risks flying through impossible weather to pull Lee off the mountain, was said to be flying somewhere in Oklahoma.
And visitors continued to line up for rides aboard Kauai's tour helicopters -- the largest fleet in the state.
On June 25, 1998, Lowe's Ohana Aerostar 350B helicopter, with the pilot apparently lost and disoriented in a cloud, slammed full speed into the side of Mount Waialeale, killing Lowe, Yang, Yang's cousin Rebecca Muse, 9, Muse's mother Pauline, all of Lake Oswego, Ore., and a couple from Twinsburg, Ohio, John and Maxine Spin.
Today, a year later, a federal investigation of the crash has been completed and all liability claims settled. The healing is another matter.
Andrew Yang and the Muses were part of an extended family on vacation in Kauai. The rest of the family members were aboard two identical Ohana helicopters flying directly ahead of Lowe's on a 55-minute tour of the island that began at 8:45 a.m.
All three flew from Lihue north to Hanalei and then south across the Blue Hole on Mount Waialeale in strong winds and shifting clouds.
The other two aircraft returned safely to Lihue Airport with the occupants initially unaware the third helicopter had crashed.
The last message sent by Lowe, a retired Navy search-and-rescue pilot who had been stationed on Kauai and had returned to fly tours, was that he was changing course because of thickening clouds.
A Navy helicopter from the Pacific Missile Range Facility picked up a signal from the downed helicopter's emergency locator radio beacon that afternoon. Rescuers tracked the distress call to the sheer side of Mount Waialeale. The Ohana helicopter crashed 2,400 feet from the base of the 5,148-foot mountain, reputed to be one of the rainiest places on the planet.
At the tip of the scar was the star-shaped impact point. The dense jungle area below it was scattered with wreckage, red mud from a landslide caused by the crash, and bodies.
The cloud level was so low and shifting so quickly, the winds so tricky and the crash site so steep that the large Navy helicopter couldn't move in close enough for a good look. A much smaller Coast Guard helicopter and the nimble Fire Department Air-1 were able to make brief sweeps over the site, but it was impossible to land.
Publicly, officials held out hope for survivors.
But D'Attilio was heard on a Fire Department frequency giving a terse report: "No survivors."
And a Coast Guard pilot said privately, "Nothing up there even resembles a helicopter any more."
Andrew Yang's mother was hysterical, offering pilots thousands of dollars if they would go back that night and see if anyone was still alive. Repeatedly she was told it couldn't be done. It wasn't until the next day when an Ohana pilot flew her over the wreckage and she could see the six bodies on the ground that she began to accept what had happened.
Recovery efforts continued to be hampered by the same low clouds, torrential rain and high winds. The day after the crash a Navy helicopter ferried a crew of Fire Department rescue workers to the wreck site, planning to put them on the ground using a sling. Lee was the first one down and then the clouds closed in, leaving him alone in the wind and rain to fight hypothermia while digging bodies out of the mud without even a shovel.
During a short break in the weather, Air-1 flew in with a cargo net slung below the helicopter and took out the bodies of Lowe and the two children. Then the clouds closed in again.
As the weather grew worse that afternoon, fire officials decided they were going to have to leave Lee, who had taken shelter from the rain under an outcropping and said he was approaching a "survival situation," on the mountainside all night. Despite zero visibility at times, D'Attilio insisted on making one last attempt to get Lee out before dark.
The pilot -- who always wore a black flight suit and a bandanna tied around his head and whose logo was the Ace of Spades, the death card -- showed why all the Kauai Fire Department Rescue Squad members say they have absolute faith in his abilities.
He managed to drop a line to Lee, who grabbed it and hung on while D'Attilio flew him to the base of the mountain.
The following day, the last three bodies were recovered, but the weather remained bad and it was a week until the wreckage could be brought out and laid on a hangar floor at Lihue Airport. The emergency radio beacon, undamaged, was still transmitting.
Wayne Pollack, the National Transportation Safety Board investigator flown in from California, said there was nothing mechanically wrong with the helicopter.
At the time of the crash it had fuel and the engine was running when it hit the mountain. The angle of the crash damage indicated Lowe may have tried to pull up at the last instant.
Interviewed this week, Pollack said the investigation is complete, but it will be an additional three months until it wends its way through the review process and is considered by the board, which will make findings and recommendations, if any.
"We don't have anything new since I was there a year ago," he said. On his way back to California he stopped in Honolulu where he recovered a tape showing the radar track of the helicopter in the moments before the crash.
Since the day of the accident, the families of the victims have asked the news media for privacy. Kauai Hospice workers stepped in and cared for them. This week, they still declined interviews.
"This family has been ruined," said Mark Bocci, Oregon attorney for the Yang and Muse families. "It's all the things you can imagine that would break a family apart. I'm hoping for them that getting past this first anniversary will start some healing."
Bocci gave Ohana Helicopters very high marks for its handling of the tragedy. All of the liability claims were settled promptly without lawsuits, and it was the Yangs who asked Ohana to fly them to the crash site this week.
"They lost one of their guys too," Bocci said. "It clearly was very hard on them."
Michael Stoner, business manager for Ohana, said this week: "A year later it's still in the forefront of everyone's mind every day. A lot of people's lives here were affected. We're going to spend the afternoon Friday talking about it together."
Lee said the crash is something he thinks about only rarely and talks about even less.
"It's pau," he said.