Thursday, May 13, 1999


By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Cpl. Matt Nelson, front, gets a hug from his
friend HM3 Blake Mokabee.

Helpful Marines don’t
feel like heroes

By Susan Kreifels


Two Kaneohe Marines will be recommended for medals for their heroic efforts in the Sacred Falls landslide Sunday.

But neither of them is feeling much like a hero.

One is working through guilt about why he lived when eight died. The other says he is still in disbelief.

Here are their stories of that tragic afternoon.


Until Tuesday night, Cpl. Jason Hill's legs weren't working very well.

"My entire body was so clinched, I just couldn't walk," said Hill, the 21-year-old pianist of the Marine Forces Pacific Band.

More than the physical stress of carrying people out of the danger zone, Hill believes it was the emotional trauma of seeing people die, no matter how hard he tried to save them, that locked his muscles so tightly.

Hill and his friend Jay Long, a Navy petty officer at Pearl Harbor, were just a bend away from the landslide when they heard the roar and screams. Those caught in the rocks rushed by with quick tales of horror, and the two ran to help.

Hill, a religious man from Muskogee, Okla., sang hymns for courage to face the human carnage that he knew awaited him. That courage helped him carry out Whitney Phillips, a Salt Lake City newlywed with an injured foot; try to revive a woman who had lost half her body; hold together a man's skull; squeeze the air bag of 7-year-old Danielle Williams, who he thought would make it but didn't.

He sang hymns to an unconscious man, hoping to bring him back "from that little white light."

Hill is now being praised for his actions. But knowing many of the people he helped are dead makes accepting that praise the most difficult thing of all.

Because Hill feels guilty that he lived while others died.

"It's irrational. I know I did all I could. I wish it would all go away."

The guilt of life is starting to ease. He's spoken with counselors about what feelings to expect in coming days. He played in a concert Tuesday. He contacted Phillips at Castle Medical Center, hoping to see the one victim he knows survived. And he's gathering names and phone numbers of those he worked with side by side, creating in a few hours a lifelong bond with strangers brought together under the most gut-wrenching circumstances.

Hill knows the experience has made him a stronger person.

Still, "I don't like to be alone. I'm sure for a long time things will haunt me."


Cpl. Matthew Nelson didn't leave the pain when he finally hiked out of Sacred Falls Sunday.

He and girlfriend Natalie Bann were in the middle of the rock slide. They survived relatively unscathed.

A few feet away, Bann's brother, Aaron Bann, died saving his wife Cindy, who remains hospitalized.

Nelson, who turned 22 Tuesday, has stayed with the family, offering his support. He sent his girlfriend and her father back to California yesterday and continues to watch over Cindy Bann.

"It still hasn't hit," Nelson said. "I feel like I'm in a movie. It's unreal. I can't explain it."

A scout sniper with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Nelson was one of the last people to come out of Sacred Falls on Sunday after staying to help victims like Air Force Master Sgt. Scott Huling.

Nelson thought the Hickam Air Force Base man, who had difficulty breathing but seemed "very strong and positive," was going to make it. Wanting to keep Huling alert, Nelson approached him with simple words.

"'Hey, buddy, what's your name?' He said, 'I'm Scott.' I started talking with him.

"He said, 'I appreciate you trying to get my mind off (my injuries). But I would rather lie here.'"

Those may have been Huling's last words.

Nelson, who says he's not a religious man nor an atheist, is searching for answers to why the rocks killed others, not him.

"There's no explanation. It's sheer luck, or God, whatever you want to call it.

"But you kind of have to believe there's a reason that it happened, who it happened to, to get through it."

Like many who risked their lives that day in the "danger zone," Nelson praises others, not himself. Like Petty Officer 2nd Class Astru Cruz off the Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis. Cruz let Cindy Bann lie on top of him, rather than the rocks, to ease her pain.

"He was Cindy's angel," Nelson says.

Great emotion seems to be hidden just under Nelson's skin. Yet the sniper remains reserved as he describes that Sunday.

"Everybody's got to get through it, accept it, move on."

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