Waimea Falls, a spectacular spot to watch cliff diving,
has also been deadly to many of those attempting the feat.

Waimea’s beautiful
falls have claimed
many lives

A professional diver's death
last week follows many
through the years

By Linda Aragon and Jim Witty

Danger lurks beneath the alluring beauty of Waimea Falls.

The death of a 39-year-old professional cliff diver Friday afternoon was just the latest in a string of fatalities at Waimea Falls Park.

Police said the diver apparently overrotated a turn and hit his head on a rock protruding slightly above the water's surface.

An autopsy was scheduled for today; a positive identification is pending.

Through the years, several divers have died, most after striking one of the many large rocks not visible from the perches above.

Hawaiian mythology has it that Waimea Valley was the home of demigod Kamapua'a, who slipped and fell from the ridge above, creating the falls that have lured novice leapers and champion divers alike.

Patty Adolphson, who grew up accompanying her father on his one-man police patrols of the North Shore during the 1950s and '60s, recalls several calls for help at the falls.

Once, the family was enjoying a day at Sunset Beach when Sgt. Buddy Adolphson received word of a fatality at Waimea Falls.

"Here we were three girls in the car," Adolphson recalled. "We were all scared, of course, because this was my first dead body."

The road to the falls was too narrow for fire trucks, so Sgt. Adolphson would drive his police car up to the falls and retrieve the bodies by loading them onto the surf racks on top.

"I know that he felt Waimea was a very sacred place," she said. "I'm sure daddy's feeling about Waimea was it did hold spirits."

Once a thriving village along the river, Waimea Valley was home to thousands of native Hawaiians, who left behind rockwork, burial sites and sacred heiau.

The cliff ledges above the pond have long lured thrillseekers to jump from heights of 40 feet and higher. The women's world championship cliff-diving competition was held there in 1980.

The earliest newspaper accounts of tragedy at Waimea Falls date back to the 1950s, when anyone could attempt a dive.

The park is now owned by a company that doesn't permit the public to jump.

Fire Capt. James Mensching of the Sunset Beach fire station said the rush of the falls and the muddy waters make it difficult for rescuers.

"There is a tremendous amount of water pouring in from the falls and it will hold a body or person stationary underwater," Mensching said.

In the latest incident, the body was not recovered for more than an hour. "The water was probably very murky where you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face," Mensching said.

Mensching said Sunset Beach firefighters do not enter the falls with snorkel equipment but wait for the department's scuba-diving unit to arrive from town.

Mensching said the scuba equipment, along with a rope attaching the rescuers to shore, is needed because of the probability of being held underwater a long time.

A history of deaths

Other tragedies at Waimea Falls:

1952: Five merchant marines were swimming at the pond when one fell to his death as he attempted a jump from the 40-foot tier. Hitting his head on the cliff as he plunged, he sank into the murky depths of the pond and was not found until the next day.

1954: A Navy man died after hitting his head on a rock near the water's surface. His body took two hours to recover.

1960: Fire rescuers used a grappling hook for two hours to find the body of a man who slipped into the rushing waters above the falls.

1964: A 21-year-old Navy man died when he dove from a 50-foot ledge and struck his head on a rock in the pond below. His body was recovered three hours later. That same year, another Navy man broke his neck when he jumped from the falls.

1965: Another Navy man, 18, broke his neck when he dove, landing on a rock that rose above the water's surface.

1967: An airman died in a fall as he attempted to climb up the falls. His girlfriend watched in horror as he fell screaming into the water.

1976: A Connecticut man died when he dove from the rock.

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