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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Visitor dies after being swept from Maui stream

 •  Map: Pool where accident occurred

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

It started harmlessly, with a 7-year-old chasing a slipper down a stream. It ended tragically, with an apparent drowning in heavy surf.

A California man drowned Monday at the Pools of 'Ohe'o, the fourth to die this year at the popular Maui attraction.

National Park Service photo

Monday's accident at the Pools of 'Ohe'o left two children without a father and a wife without a husband. It also left officials at Haleakala National Park once again pondering safety issues tied to the popular East Maui tourist destination.

An autopsy is scheduled today on Kevin Oakley, 41, of Sun Valley, Calif., the fourth person to die this year in the lower section of Kipahulu's Palikea Stream, an area commonly known as the Seven Sacred Pools.

Maui Police Department chaplains yesterday were counseling the surviving family members, and park rangers were interviewing witnesses.

According to a national park statement, Oakley, his wife Michelle, 37, and their children, Brielle, 11, and Austin, 7, were swimming in the lowest pool at about 6 p.m. when Austin lost his slipper and went after it. His father caught up with the boy and was holding his arm before being swept out of the pool into a narrow, rocky section of the stream that leads to the ocean.

The elder Oakley had his son in a bear hug to protect him from the rocks and the incoming surf, Ranger Sharon Ringsven said. Dean Miller, an emergency medical technician from Placentia, Calif., jumped into the ocean and grabbed the boy but was unable to reach the father.

Oakley was carried farther out into the ocean where he was seen swimming in 4- to 6-foot breaks, above-average swells and 10- to 15-mph winds.

A Maui Fire Department rescue helicopter found his lifeless body floating 400 yards north of the pools at 7 p.m.

Assistant Fire Chief Gordon Cordeiro said it normally takes 20 minutes to fly from Kahului to Kipahulu, but rough weather Monday night caused some delays and the helicopter made the flight in 30 minutes.

A "no swimming" sign was posted along the trail at the Pools of 'Ohe'o on Maui the day a California man drowned trying to save his son. Witnesses said there was no flash flood at the time of the accident.

Courtesy of National Park Service

Ringsven said "no swimming" signs were posted at the pools Monday morning because of the "above-average" stream level caused by several days of rain at higher elevations. The signs were still posted when rangers left for the day and the Kipahulu Visitor Center closed at 5 p.m.

Thirty miles away at Milepost 11 on Hana Highway, a group of Seattle and San Diego visitors had survived being swept away by a flash flood at about 4:45 p.m. Monday.

Witnesses said they heard a loud crash as the popular Puohokamoa Falls swelled with rushing water. Five children and one adult were caught in the flash flood, but managed to hold on to rocks before a tour guide used a long pole to pull them to safety.

At Kipahulu, the stream was not experiencing a flash flood at the time of Oakley's drowning and the water was clear, witnesses told the rangers.

On April 10, a Louisville, Ky., man and his 8-year-old daughter were swept over Makahiku Falls, farther up the stream, and out to sea, and were never seen again. In January, a Kihei man died when he jumped from the same 184-foot waterfall.

An April lawsuit filed against the National Park Service claimed the agency was negligent in a May 2002 incident in which a New York City woman was swept offshore from the pools and drowned.

Haleakala Superintendent Don Reeser said yesterday an internal board of inquiry would be convened to look into the latest accident.

A panel that met following April's incident recommended the park service look into developing a warning system for flash floods, and a proposal to pay for the system has been forwarded to the agency's regional director, Reeser said.

The panel also recommended posting more signs to warn visitors of the potential dangers of Palikea Stream. Three displays are being developed, he said.

Reeser said he would expect the new board of inquiry to look at whether Kipahulu needs more staffing and at the possibility of extending the hours of the Kipahulu Visitor Center.

While the board might look at closing the district during high-water periods, Reeser said his feeling is that people should read signs and take responsibility for their actions. The park has an obligation to keep people safe "to the greatest degree possible," he said, but it must also allow visitors to enjoy the resources.

"We don't want to penalize the people who can enjoy the area safely," he said. "At Glacier National Park, you could be mauled by a grizzly bear. But to deny people the chance to walk on the trails wouldn't sit well with a lot of people. You just have to let people know that the grizzly bears are there and that they are unpredictable."

Correction: A "no swimming" sign was posted Monday at the trail at the Pools of 'Ohe'o on Maui. Information in a photo caption with a previous version of this story was incorrect.

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