Teamwork, 'brute strength' saved Big Island firefighter
By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer
It was only one false step, but it nearly cost Brent Matsuda his life.
As it turned out, the missing hunters got home safely on their own. Matsuda could have used some of that luck.
Matsuda and partner James Wilson, were among six two-man teams who were dropped into the dense forest by helicopter shortly before 9 a.m. that day. The search was conducted from opposite ends to cover a 4-mile stretch from Volcano to the Eden Rock subdivision.
Matsuda and Wilson were walking in an 'ohi'a forest through uluhe fern groundcover. Matsuda suddenly vanished, plunging into a lava tube. Wilson was only a few steps behind.
"I was yelling for him but got no answer," said Wilson.
Matsuda, 41, survived a 100-foot fall and is hospitalized at The Queen's Medical Center with multiple fractures to his ribs, pelvis and process vertebrae, a collapsed lung, and liver and kidney lacerations. His wife, Valerie, said yesterday that he could be released and begin rehabilitation within two to three weeks.
"I feel that I was blessed," Brent Matsuda said yesterday during a brief news conference from his hospital room. "I was very lucky to escape it the way I did."
He does not recall falling into the tube or how he got out, but his partner has filled in the blanks for him.
Matsuda fell 20 minutes after the search started, Wilson said. After calling in their location, Wilson began clearing the area of brush so it would be visible to the helicopter, which brought in other firefighters within 10 minutes.
"On the surface, it looked like a crack maybe 3 feet wide," Wilson said of the depression much like a collapsed cave. "But it ran endlessly, maybe a couple of hundred feet on either side."
Wilson, 30, a Hawai'i County firefighter for four years, rappelled into the darkness of the tube about 20 minutes after his partner fell.
"I didn't know what to expect. I couldn't see anything," he said. "I kept yelling out 'Brent!' to reassure him we were coming."
Then he heard a moan.
Wilson found Matsuda lying on his back on a ledge near another 6-foot drop.
"His helmet was really beat up, but he had it on ... " Wilson said. "I really believe it saved his life."
Wilson began checking Matsuda's condition. "I started talking to him, and he'd answer with one or two words," Wilson said. "Every two minutes or so, he'd ask me, 'What happened?' "
Fire Rescue Specialist Todd Vincent, 40, a 12-year firefighting veteran, rappelled down as soon as a second line was set up.
"I saw James sitting down, cradling Brent's head," said Vincent. "It was cold and dark down there. Brent was dehydrated and asking for water, but we couldn't give him any because of his injuries.
Intravenous relief wasn't possible "because it was so dark and his veins were contracting."
Wilson and Vincent managed to get Matsuda onto a flat board. Eight firefighters began pulling it up with Matsuda secured upright. Vincent, who kept the board steady, had to be pulled up separately.
"It took 45 minutes and was an inch-by-inch process," Vincent said. "They'd pull Brent up three to five feet, secure him, and then pull me up and secure me. It was tricky for the guys at the top. All of it was brute strength."
Other firefighters, meanwhile, were hurrying to chop down trees so the helicopter could lower a basket for Matsuda, Vincent said.
It took three hours to get Matsuda out of the tube and moved to Hilo Medical Center.
"I expected the worse so it was a relief beyond words to know he's OK," Wilson said.
Valerie Matsuda was in Kona when she received a telephone message at about 1 p.m. to call Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira at the hospital.
"Chief Oliveira told me Brent was badly injured, very serious, and they were going to fly him to Honolulu," she said. She flew to Honolulu and took a taxi to Queen's where, as soon as she touched her husband, who was still unconscious, "I just knew that he was going to recover."
Brent Matsuda, a Honoka'a resident who has two sons and five stepchildren, thanked his fellow firefighters for saving his life.
A Hawai'i County firefighter for eight years, Matsuda said he's familiar with the Captains Trail area where the search was conducted. "I just took a wrong first step. Fortunately I made it back," he said.