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Friday, May 5, 2000

Department of Land and Natural Resources
The scene, a day after the May 9 landslide sent rocks crashing
down on dozens of people gathered around the falls.

Sacred Falls - A Year After the Tragedy
Still Hurting

‘It’s been a year, but
it seems like yesterday.
It’s clear as day.’

The Eight Victims
Rescuers still troubled
Will the park ever open again?

by Jaymes K. Song


ON a warm Mother's Day afternoon at Sacred Falls State Park, rocks fell from the sky, killing eight people and seriously injuring dozens of others.

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, one of the deadliest natural disasters in Hawaii's history.

In the aftermath, a father in Canada is still coping with his wife's death, trying his best to raise their young son alone.

A Hickam Air Force Base woman, who lost her daughter, still feels rocks crashing down on her.

And a firefighter in Kaaawa can't forget the look in a dying woman's eyes.

Hundreds of lives changed in an instant that day. Here's a look at some of them, one year later.


By Ian Jackson, Special to the Star-Bulletin
Geza Szenes with his son, Colin, 8, and dog, Max, at their home in
Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. Killed in the rockfall was wife
and mother Terri. "On one hand, we're very lucky to be alive,"
Szenes says, "but on the other, my son and I experienced
overwhelming grief." Colin was seriously injured and had
to have a titanium plate surgically placed in his head.

GEZA Szenes thinks of death all the time. That wasn't the way it was before and certainly not on May 9 a year ago, when Szenes, his wife, Terri Zerebeski, and their young son, Colin, spent Mother's Day afternoon lounging around the waterfall at Sacred Falls State Park.

But in less than a minute, their family was shattered. Rocks tumbled from the mountainside as they were getting ready to leave, killing Terri, a 42-year-old nurse, and seriously injuring Colin.

When it was over, Szenes found his wife of 14 years lying on a bed of rubble, her head bloodied and smashed.

"I didn't really recognize her," he recalled. "Subconsciously, I didn't want to accept reality. I recognized her clothes. I knew it was my wife. But I didn't want to believe it was her."

Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of his wife's death in what's become known as the Sacred Falls tragedy, one of the deadliest natural disasters in state history.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
This is one of the original eight crosses that are still in front
of the Sacred Falls State Park sign. All the crosses
have flowers on them.

Four women, three men and a 7-year-old girl died that day. More than a dozen children were among the 34 injured. Six children from three families lost a parent.

Since then, Szenes (pronounced seh-nes), a 43-year-old systems analyst, has been a busy single father, raising 8-year-old Colin at their suburban home in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada.

Colin had to have a titanium plate surgically placed in his head, and is startled every time he hears loud noises, such as thunder.

Meanwhile, Szenes' health has been failing as he tries to cope with the loss of his wife -- "my partner for life."

When he realized his wife was dead that Mother's Day, he focused his attention on getting medical attention for Colin, whose head was ripped open by a falling rock.

After comforting his son, he went back for a moment to tend to his wife, being careful to keep his son away.

"I picked up her camera and purse," he said. "I didn't want my son to see her."

He gently touched his wife's face and left her there to hike back out for help.

When Colin asked about his mother, Szenes told him the most difficult thing a father could say to his son. "I told him mother was dead," Szenes said softly. "It was very hard."

A year later, they both still attend counseling sessions.

"On one hand, we're very lucky to be alive, but on the other, my son and I experienced overwhelming grief and tragic circumstances," Szenes said. "It's hard to reconcile. All of a sudden, I'm faced with my own mortality. Yes, it could happen any moment, any time, and it will happen some day.

"It hasn't gotten easier."

Robert Cole Graham wrote this message in September on the
cross for Jennifer Johnson, his fiancee, who died in the rock fall.

It was the unexpectedness of death that many find hard to deal with even today. People were celebrating a sunny Mother's Day. By day's end, they were in shock and grief.

Many of them declined to be interviewed for this article, saying the memories are still too painful.

While the physical wounds have healed, emotionally and mentally, a lot more healing is needed.

"Hopefully, it wears off," Anselmo DeSaavedra said of the pain of losing his adopted daughter, Danielle Nicole Williams, the youngest person killed. "It's so vivid in my mind. It's been a year, but it seems like yesterday. It's clear as day."

DeSaavedra, a sergeant at Hickam Air Force Base, his wife, April, and Danielle and her brother, Dorian, were at Sacred Falls with friends to celebrate Mother's Day.

On good days, it sometimes seems life is "back to normal," but then DeSaavedra realizes it isn't.

"It comes back at you," he explained. "It comes back at you in waves. It's 'Why did it happen?' mixed with anger. Why did it happen to us? You keep thinking of rocks coming down, you still have a vivid picture."

By Ian Jackson, Special to the Star-Bulletin
Geza Szenes reads to his son, Colin, 8, at their home in Sherwood
Park, Alberta, Canada. "All of a sudden, I'm faced with my own
mortality," Szenes says. "Yes, it could happen any moment, any
time, and it will happen some day."

Most of the survivors and victim's families have gone to counseling, but say it's their spouses, children, relatives or each other who help keep them going.

"I think for me, not a day goes by I don't think about (Danielle) or what happened," April said. "I try to stay upbeat, but when I'm by myself, I'm in my own private hell."

She isn't ready to revisit Sacred Falls, on the anniversary date of her daughter's death or any time soon.

She has flashbacks driving past Sacred Falls park, which remains closed.

"Every time you close your eyes, you can feel the rocks hitting you," she said.

Six lawsuits have been filed against the state on behalf of the victims' families and survivors, including DeSaavedra and Szenes. One was filed just this week.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Christine Johnson placed flowers for her daughter, Sara
Johnson, at the Sacred Falls State Park gate last year.

The suits allege the state was negligent in not warning visitors of possible rockfalls, and had knowledge of the danger at Sacred Falls because of prior incidents.

"There's no question the state of Hawaii had knowledge of prior rockfalls," said Honolulu attorney Laurent Remillard, whose firm is representing five of the families.

Remillard noted a 4-year-old girl was killed by falling rocks in 1982. Others were injured by rocks, and there had been several near misses.

The state failed to act responsibly warning people of the hazards of Sacred Falls, he said.

Remillard wouldn't disclose the amount of damages he is pursuing for his clients, but did say it is "very substantial" because the suits are dealing with "death and serious injuries."

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources wouldn't comment about previous rockfalls or the allegations, and referred all questions to the Attorney General's office.

However, no one from the Attorney General's office returned several calls asking for comment.

Meanwhile, Szenes said he doesn't have any plans to mark the anniversary. But he does expect to talk to his son.

Like the other survivors and families, Szenes is hoping he and his son will be able to move on.

"We have to carry on -- just keep going."

Sacred Falls - A Year After the Tragedy

Will the park
ever open again?

Officials are still assessing risks

By Jaymes K. Song

Tapa Rocks continue to fall at Sacred Falls State Park, and officials continue to assess whether the once popular hiking site will ever reopen.

But no one, whether from the state or surrounding community, is in a rush to make a decision.

Recently fallen rocks have been found along the trail -- not at the waterfall where eight people were killed by a rockslide on Mother's Day 1999, according to Timothy Johns, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

In November, a falling rock almost hit a state worker, Johns said.

He said he believes the park, tucked in the back of Kaluanui Gulch, is still dangerous.

The state is working with the community to decide the future of the park, as well as that of neighboring Maakua Gulch. There is no hurry to reopen the area, allowing the community and victims more time to heal, Johns said.

Map A study by the U.S. Geological Survey last year found that the May 9 rock fall was a result "of long-term, gradual degradation of the slope, rather than by being triggered by external factors."

The geologists added, "The continuing (long-term) level of landslide hazard in the Kaluanui and Maakua Gulches is very high because of the steep, high canyon walls, narrow valley floors, and ongoing slope weathering and rockfall."

DLNR is considering opening portions of the park, areas that are far from any risk of rockslides.

"The park is much bigger than just the trail back to the falls -- the park is pretty large," Johns said. "Opening parts of the park for certain types of uses is an option."

DLNR said segments of Sacred Falls park could be open by the end of the year if studies and evaluations are completed and decisions made.

Permanent closure of Sacred Falls, which drew 50,000 visitors yearly, also is an option, although the state is not leaning toward it, Johns said.

Community members, including Rep. Colleen Meyer (R, Laie-Waikane-Waiahole), said the park should not be opened anytime soon.

"Maybe, in time, there can be guided tours with small numbers who would sign releases," she said. "I can't see ever going back to what it was."

Some community members believe the park was being abused, she said, because it had become such a tourist attraction.

"They had a feeling it wasn't being appropriately used for a long time," she said. "There was a feeling of misuse of a very special place."

The Koolauloa Neighborhood Board "had several meetings with the community, and the consensus is the park should be closed at least temporarily," said board member Creighton Mattoon.

"The place needs to be rested and healed," said Mattoon, who lives a mile and a half away from Sacred Falls. "Not only the land, but the people."

Mattoon is also a part of the Koolauloa Hawaiian Civic Club, which has planted native plants and hosted a healing ceremony near the base of the park.

The community and DLNR will have to discuss a plan for the park, he said.

His club recently offered to become the park's curator.

Part of its proposed activities would be to research the park's culture and history, as well as to plant more native plants, Mattoon said.

Meanwhile, last year's landslide prompted the state to form a risk assessment team to examine other state parks and trails.

So far, no other trails or parks have been found to be dangerous, but more complete assessments still need to be done, Johns said.

"I'm not sure why it hasn't been done before," he added. "I'm not sure what studies there have been in the past."

DLNR wouldn't comment on lawsuits filed against the state by survivors and the families of victims.

"In my mind, it's such a beautiful place," Meyer said. "It will be a shame if nobody can ever go" there again.

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