Monday, May 10, 1999

6 dead at Sacred Falls: A roar like thunder, then screams of agony
Bullet Dead and injured: At least 6 are dead
and 33 are hurt; more could be buried by boulders
Bullet In the aftermath: Dangerous conditions are
hampering rescue and recovery efforts

Rescuers describe 'nightmare'

By Lori Tighe


They heard what sounded like thunder, then a roar like a freight train, then screams and cries of agony.

Then people began to emerge beneath the landslide. Some had missing arms, missing legs, holes through their bodies, exposed abdominal cavities. One person had half a face. Others were flattened under boulders the size of cars, according to shocked rescuers.

A sunny beautiful Mother's Day at Sacred Falls State Park in Hauula instantly transformed into a grisly scene when part of the mountainside near the waterfall sheared off and fell onto picnickers and sunbathers around 2:30 p.m.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Sailor Jason Long, left, and Marine Jason Hill warm up
after helping victims of the landslide.

Boulders, trees and branches killed at least six people -- believed to be three women, two men and a girl about age 9. More are thought to be possibly buried under the boulders. Red Cross and Civil Defense officials said today that 33 others were injured.

"Nature just let go," said Honolulu Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi, shaking his head. One of the rescuers, firefighter Brian Carvalho, said, "It looked like a war scene."

Park closed indefinitely

A top portion of the right side of the mountain, as you face the waterfall, collapsed onto the rocky area in front of the falls. Hikers rest there, eat lunch, sunbathe and view their reward, the beauty of the falls.

"Hundreds of rocks came down, and it had a ping-pong effect, bouncing off the wall," Fire Department Battalion Chief Kenneth Silva said today.

Geologists speculated that dry conditions may have separated the clay from the mountainside, loosening the rock front.

Rescuers were prepared to return today to look for more victims. But first, geologists were surveying the area in a helicopter to make sure it it was safe.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
David Pahk hugs Michael Bianchi after both worked to help
victims at Sacred Falls State Park. Pahk placed the first 911 call
summoning emergency workers.

"Then we'll try to determine what caused it," geologist Glenn Bauer said today.

The park will be closed indefinitely.

The six who were killed were removed from the area by nightfall, said Deputy Fire Chief John Clark. Fire officials suspended their search for any missing people at 8 p.m. because the scene was too unstable and dangerous.

Firefighters, paramedics and civilian volunteers risked their own lives pulling bodies out of the rubble and giving people first aid beneath the shadow of the landslide's sheared cliff.

'Enormous roar' at onset

"It's the worst I've ever seen," said Dr. Geoff Scott, a head and neck surgeon on vacation from Anaheim, Calif. "I'll never come back."

He had hiked almost all the way to the falls with his two children and wife when he heard the "enormous roar." Scott said he initially thought it was a flash flood, when rain water on a mountaintop builds up and gushes down in a powerful surge.

Scott sent his family out of the park while he and about two dozen other civilian rescuers headed toward the disaster to help.

"The first thing we did was get people out of the fall zone. We triaged who was the sickest and tried to support them until the paramedics came," Scott said.

His 5-year-old son came up to him when it was all over and asked, "Daddy, Daddy, where's your shirt?"

By Bryant Fukutomi, Star-Bulletin

The landslide
Boulders the size of cars and other debris crashed down on hikers yesterday at Sacred Falls State Park. Here's what happened:

The victims
Most of the injured and killed were either swimming or gathered near the falls to picnic and sunbathe.

The area
Debris covering the size of a football field slides down the right slope at about 2:30 p.m., dropping 500 feet to the valley floor. "Hundreds of rocks came down, and it had a ping- pong effect, bouncing off the wall," said Kenneth Silva, fire department battalion chief.

Scott answered, "Someone needed it more than I did."

Gov. Ben Cayetano arrived at the park entrance around 6:30 p.m. with Tim Johns, head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, to get an update of the disaster.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Gov. Ben Cayetano was aboard
a Fire Department helicopter at the site.

"My heart goes out to the victims of this terrible accident and their families," Cayetano said. "On behalf of the people of Hawaii, I extend deepest sorrow and sympathy over the tragic loss of life in this most devastating natural disaster."

The governor also commended the heroic rescuers, both professional and volunteer.

By the time rescuers pulled the last two dead people from the impact zone around 6:30 p.m., firefighter Carvalho said he could hear rocks falling.

"One of the most unfortunate is a little girl that hit my heart," he said. "She was still alive. Firefighters were working on her but she didn't make it."

The deadly toll

Red Cross and State Civil Defense report six dead, 33 injured in the landslide at Sacred Falls State Park.

Bullet Of the 33 injured, 20 were treated and released.

Bullet Of the 13 admitted to hospitals, seven are at Queen's, two at Castle, two at Kapiolani and two at Kahuku.

Bullet Victims from the landslide were also treated at Tripler and Kuakini hospitals.

Bullet Names of the victims were not available.

Park unusually crowded

Volunteer Nathan McCotter pulled at his bloody T-shirt and said in a choked voice: "This blood is from the girl who died. I tried to help her."

The girl, who volunteers said was age 9, had been alive when rescuers reached her and gave her CPR for nearly an hour, but she died at the scene.

"I believe she's in the Lord's hands now," said David Pahk, 37, who originally called 911.

He was working at an informational booth at the park entrance when a man came running from the trail and told him about the landslide.

Pahk drove his truck as far as it could go up the 2.2-mile trail, and then ran the rest of the way to the disaster scene to help.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Members of Greater Mount Zion Holiness Church just up
the road from Sacred Falls came to the staging area to give
support and pray for victims.

"There were bodies everywhere. I carried bodies live and dead, with head injuries, arms and legs broken, open skulls. Everyone was helping out," Pahk said.

Firefighters and paramedics arrived at the park within several minutes after Pahk called, and made it to the disaster scene within about 20 minutes.

Pahk said it was one of the busiest days at the park he had ever recalled, with visitors wishing to celebrate Mother's Day with Mother Nature.

Rescuers kept morale up

Shanon Victor, 21, an enlisted Navy man, had called his mother in Houston to wish her a happy Mother's Day and then decided to hike alone at Sacred Falls.

He was about 100 yards in front of the falls when he heard the sound.

"It was very loud, a thunder and a roar. Next thing I heard was loud screaming and yelling," Victor said. "People were trying to pull themselves up. I ran toward the sounds."

His first instinct was to help people, he said, and his military training kicked in. He saw people with missing limbs and torn bodies.

All of the civilian rescuers kept the morale up, he said.

Puppy saves couple's lives

Most of the critically and seriously injured victims were airlifted to Kahuku or Queen's Hospital. Others were transported on an Oahu Transit Services bus and by ambulance.

"Not a single person helping gave up," Victor said. "It was just beautiful." Then he acknowledged he was probably still in shock.

"It will take some time for me to sort this all out."

A Makakilo teen, Julian DeGrandis, and four friends carried one man on a stretcher down the trail to help.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
A couple comes off the trail at Sacred Falls, he with blood
on his shorts, she with a wrap and a concerned look.

"We had a hard time getting out. He had a gash in his head, and we were keeping him conscious," DeGrandis said. "There was a lot of screaming and yelling. It was pretty crazy."

Tracy Murphy and his wife, Noni, say their new puppy from the Humane Society, named Stonewall Jackson, probably saved their lives.

As they walked Stonewall up the trail, the puppy poked around and took his time. The couple never reached the falls. They came within an eighth of a mile when they heard the thunderous noise and then the screams.

'People lay everywhere'

"People came down the trail with lacerations, broken arms, broken legs," Murphy said. "People lay everywhere. They had holes in them them from flying sticks. Rocks were on top of them."

Murphy, a volunteer firefighter stationed with his wife at Wheeler Army Air Field, took his towels out and started putting tourniquets on victims.

A nun visiting from Palm Beach County broke her arm and wrist and was missing a finger, Murphy said. He said he decided to focus on her and carried her down the trail to safety.

"She had a foot and she had a leg, but I couldn't see her ankle. It wasn't there," he said.

Murphy's wife, Noni, said, "We don't think we'll ever come back."


By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
State officials were studying the possibility of installing a
"solar-sonic alarm" that emits a warning when water rose
to a certain level at the time of this 1987 photo.

A dangerous history

Sacred Falls has spelled danger to a number of people over the years. Here's a look at the incidents that have occurred since 1970.

Bullet September 1997: A 20-year-old man was rescued after he spent four days at the park after taking a wrong trail and ending up in an area he couldn't get out of.
Bullet July 1996: A Navy man was rescued and hospitalized after he fell on a muddy portion of a trail and hit his back on a rock.
Bullet April 1996: Two men were swept downstream and three others were stranded in a flash flood.
Bullet August 1995: A 21-year-old woman was injured when she slipped and suffered a sprain.
Bullet August 1995: A 39-year-old woman broke her arm after falling on a rock.
Bullet July 1995: A Navy man who was snorkeling was found dead in the pool. He suffered a head injury, possibly from slipping on a rock.
Bullet July 1995: A rescue helicopter crashed during a search for a missing hiker. The crashed killed the pilot and two police officers.
Bullet May 1993: A 22-year-old Hickam Army Airfield soldier was injured when he was hit on the head by a rock falling from the cliffs about 150 feet from the falls.
Bullet October 1993: Four Boy Scouts were rescued after they were swept away in a flash flood.
Bullet October 1991: A rock slide injured a man and two women. The rocks were loosened by heavy rains and hit the hikers in the head and back.
Bullet September 1988: Two men were hospitalized for two weeks after going swimming at the park. They contracted the bacterial disease leptospirosis.
Bullet August 1987: A 62-year-old Honolulu man was swept away in a flash flood. His body was never recovered.
Bullet March 1987: A 22-year-old Kailua woman and her 2-year-old son were killed after being swept away in a flash flood. Thirty others were rescued.
Bullet March 1987: Two Hauula men, 23 and 43, drowned in a pool at the base of the falls.
Bullet July 1982: Eleven people, several of them children, were rescued after being trapped by a flash flood.
Bullet June 1982: A 25-year-old Navy man died after falling from the cliffs above the park.
Bullet January 1982: A 4-year-old girl was killed when she was hit on the head by a falling rock at the pool. Her stepfather suffered cuts and a broken collarbone.
Bullet June 1980: A woman was injured when she slipped trying to escape rising waters.
Bullet August 1973: Twenty people trapped by a flash flood were rescued.
Bullet January 1972: A 22-year-old woman and a 9-year-old girl were killed and several others were injured in a flash flood.
Bullet May 1970: Thirty people were trapped under a small rock slide. One man suffered serious injuries.

NOTE: Numerous people also have become lost in the area and required rescue over the years.

Rescuers describe

'You don't think you'd even
dream' of such a horrific,
chaotic scene

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


David Pahk was among a group of 15 people performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on an unconscious young girl as they carried her down the hiking trail on a gurney. She later was pronounced dead.

Nathan McCotter held a man's head together to stop the bleeding. McCotter isn't sure he'll ever know what happened to the man.

The horrific and chaotic scene the two volunteers from the Sacred Falls Assistance Program experienced yesterday is one they won't forget.

The two were operating the information and care stand at the base of the hike, about 2.2 miles from the falls.

"I greeted every single person up there," Pahk said. "I asked them where their mothers were, what they got them for Mother's Day."

At around 2:30 p.m., Pahk said, a man came running down from the trail telling him about the landslide.

Pahk, 37, used a cellular phone to call 911, and within an hour both he and McCotter were in the thick of the most unforgettable scene of their lives.

"It was just like 'M*A*S*H,'" Pahk said.

The boulders that came from above the falls and onto the hikers "were the size of cars," Pahk said.

"It was actually almost like something you never would think you would ever see in your whole life, even something you don't think you would even dream," McCotter said. "Almost worse than the worst nightmare you could have."

For Pahk, the most incredible experience -- both tragic and uplifting at the same time -- involved a young girl from the mainland, about 9 or 10 years old.

"When I walked by her, at first she was screaming, sitting on the ground. She seemed fine," he said. "Five minutes later, they were saying she lost pulse."

Because CPR was being performed on her, medical personnel chose not to airlift her. Instead, about 15 police and firefighters, as well as civilians, carried her down while continuing to perform CPR.

The effort continued as the party made itself down the narrow trail for two to three hours, Pahk said.

"This girl died in our hands," Pahk said. "Nobody gave up until we were all the way down. I was praying to Jesus the whole time."

At the trail's entrance, certified officials pronounced her dead, most likely from internal injuries, he said.

He praised fire, police, state Land Department and other rescue personnel.

"They did everything right; they did their job to perfection."

Pahk described the scene as "a beautiful thing to see all these people work in such harmony."

McCotter, 25, said there was no hesitation in his mind about running up the trail to help.

"Civilian people needed to help out," McCotter said. "The park is not set up for any disaster like this."

For a good part of his time at the falls, McCotter was tasked with holding the head of an unconscious man.

"The guy's head was completely split open, and I just had a little tiny strip of gauze bandage," he said. The man wasn't conscious. "He was breathing, though. That was the most unbelievable thing."

After a while, he said, he asked a firefighter, "'Should I try to push his head together a little bit more and try to wrap it up?' and the guy said: 'No need. Don't mess with it; just leave it. Just hold it until it stops bleeding.'"

McCotter said he doesn't know what happened to the man, who was airlifted out of the area.

He said there was an attractive woman, about 18. "Her face was perfect. And then I looked, I could see further down ... part of her waist ... from there on ... it was just all spaghetti."

McCotter said she was dead.

Pahk said there were more people on the trail than he's seen in the month he's been working there.

"We have never, ever seen it not even a third that crowded," he said. "It was like Disneyland. People were leaving the trail, saying it was too crowded."

Both Pahk and McCotter said they are devout Christians.

"There was prayer being done all up and down the trail," Pahk said. The two attended a prayer service for the victims at New Hope Christian Church only hours after the tragedy.

As McCotter was dropped off at his Kaimuki home around midnight, he was still holding the small, blue Shaquille O'Neal jersey that belonged to the little girl that Pahk and others tried to save. The shirt was among a number of items that had been strewn amid the panic.

McCotter said he wasn't sure what he would do with it.

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