Other Views

By Timothy E. Johns

Saturday, June 12, 1999

Response at
Sacred Falls

THE strength of a community can be measured in many ways -- particularly by the way it holds together during a time of crisis. When tragedy strikes, communities unify in response to it and grow stronger, or fall apart, sometimes irreparably.

In the case of the devastating rockslide at Sacred Falls on May 9, it is clear that through the tragedy our community courageously pulled together to care for one another and the visitors to our island home. If we can find any comfort through the tragedy, it is the confirmation that our community, at its core, remains close-knit, ready to pull together in times of need despite the challenges we face.

On behalf of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, I'd like to express sincere gratitude to everyone who assisted with caring for victims of the tragic accident. Words can never express the praise and admiration we feel for all who were involved in the rescue effort.

Given the remote location of the falls, many of the injured were helped and ultimately saved by other victims and hikers, some of whom were seriously hurt themselves, who did their best to respond to the tragedy before medical teams arrived. Nearby residents also unselfishly gave assistance upon learning of the disaster.

Police, fire and DLNR conservation enforcement officers and state park personnel, who first arrived at the scene, risked their lives to rescue victims and evacuate them as soon as possible. Ambulance crews, faced with life-threatening injuries, worked tirelessly to save and treat as many victims as they could.

City bus drivers were diverted with their buses to the park to assist in transporting the injured to hospitals. Army medical evacuation helicopters were used to fly the more seriously injured to emergency facilities.

Hospitals usually staffed to respond to predictable patient loads immediately called in extra help to effectively deal with the unscheduled overload. American Red Cross volunteers and their families supplied food, water and encouragement to the victims and rescuers alike.

State geologists flew into the valley to provide rescuers with vital information about conditions overhead, while beginning to assess the origin of the rockslide.

The search for victims and an explanation for the tragedy continued the next day with DLNR, fire rescue, police, state investigators and geologists. These volunteers, knowing there was continued risk, returned to the impact site without hesitation as rocks continued to fall.

The Air Force and Marine Corps deployed search personnel, detector dogs, and heat detecting devices to help locate any victims who may have remained buried under rocks and debris.

Federal aviation inspectors cleared the airspace above the falls to minimize the possibility of low-flying aircraft triggering more slides. The Department of Defense and Civil Defense offered manpower, technical support and equipment.

Two days later, Navy divers volunteered to dive into the pool to help locate victims, since at least one remained unaccounted for and may have been pulled into the pool by the falling rocks.

Marines from Kaneohe volunteered to locate and remove victims thought to have perished under the large heavy rocks and debris. Before divers searched the pool, the body of the last victim was found and transported out of the impact zone.

On hand were Red Cross, police and Medical Examiner's Office personnel to care for the families of victims and the remains of lost loved ones.

Critical incident stress counselors from the Fire Department, Police Department, Emergency Ambulance Services and state employee assistance programs began assisting rescuers and others on-scene to cope with the events they had witnessed.

ALL of these people acted courageously and selflessly, responding to a tragic situation unlike any they had seen before, and one we hope will never be seen again. I know there are many others whom we may never know their identities, who deserve our appreciation for their help and courage as well.

To all I extend the deepest of gratitude.

I'd also like to thank the Hauula community for its outpouring of support for our rescue efforts and for their leadership in the healing process still to come.

Most of all, to the victims and their families, I extend our condolences for your losses and wish a speedy recovery to the survivors. Each of you are in our thoughts and prayers.

Timothy E. Johns is chairman of the state
Department of Land and Natural Resources.

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