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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2004

Tragedy may keep Sacred Falls shut

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

A visitor to Sacred Falls took this photo of honeymooners Russell and Whitney Phillips just 10 minutes before the May 9, 1999, rockslide. Russell was unhurt in the slide; Whitney suffered a severe leg injury.

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Michael Forsch remembers sitting next to Donna, his wife of 10 years, at one of O'ahu's most popular and picturesque spots when he heard what sounded like the roar of a freight train from above.

He looked up, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

Moments later he awoke, bloody and in pain, to the aftermath of one of the worst wilderness accidents in modern Hawai'i history.

That was five years ago today, May 9, 1999. The place: Sacred Falls.

All around Forsch lay tons of boulders and debris that had rained down from above. The injured and dead were scattered everywhere among the red-stained rocks.

Forsch was suffering from a crushed foot and a serious head injury. Worse, he couldn't find his wife, and no one could tell him anything about her.

Eight people died in that Mother's Day rockslide, Donna Forsch among them. Fifty others were injured. It was a horrendous event that scarred dozens of lives and made government liability an overriding issue in Hawai'i.

Five years later, Sacred Falls remains closed, though officials are considering reopening parts of the 1,376-acre state park other than the falls. Despite calls from hikers and Native Hawaiians to reopen the falls, and the long-standing preference for public access to open space in Hawai'i, the danger at Sacred Falls makes it unclear when — or if — that will happen.

Gerald Weber, a geologic consultant for some victims and their families who sued the state and settled for $8.56 million last year, calls Sacred Falls the worst rockfall site he has visited in his 40 years of experience in the western United States.

"I think it is the most hazardous canyon I've been in, in terms of rock falls — there's no question," he said.

A U.S. Geological Survey inspection team that assessed the site soon after the slide described the landslide, discussed possible causes and assessed ongoing landslide hazards in the canyon.

Options for Sacred Falls Park

Early planning for the possible reopening of parts of Sacred Falls State Park called for three possible levels of use: active, moderately active and passive.

• An active park would have a staffed visitor center, picnicking in the valley bowl and near the entrance, wilderness camping, walking trails that cross the stream and 55 spaces for parking in the current lot.

• A moderately active park would have the same, with no camping and an information kiosk instead of a visitor center.

• A passive park would have picnic and stream trails but not bridging the stream. It would have a kiosk and parking.

Source: DLNR

The state is considering three options, none of which includes opening the falls. The Department of Land and Natural Resources tried to find an alternate way to offer a view of the falls, but couldn't, said Lauren Tanaka, DLNR state park planner. "It's even difficult to see it from a helicopter," she said. "The valley is so narrow."

Offering limited access to the park also would be problematic, because people would want to visit the falls, Tanaka said.

"The temptation would be too great," she said, adding that people try to go to the falls even now. "One way would be to have a ranger, a full-time person to monitor people coming in."

If the falls area is reopened, more people will die, according to those who lost loved ones there or survived the ordeal.

"It's a war zone waiting to happen again," said Katie Johnson, mother of Sara Johnson, 24, who died at the falls with two other friends. A fourth member of their party was injured.

"I still don't understand why they had it open before," said Jack Johnson, Sara's father.

Sacred Falls is at the end of a lush, deep, narrow canyon between Hau'ula and Punalu'u. The canyon narrows as the 2.2-mile trail ascends to the falls. In places, the canyon walls are 1,600 feet high, although the falls are only about 90 feet high.

The waterfall, known to Hawaiians as Kaliuwa'a, feeds Kaluanui Stream. Sacred Falls is O'ahu's most impressive waterfall, which once attracted 55,000 people a year.

Scores of people were in the pool at the base of the falls or sitting on nearby rocks on a beautiful Mother's Day afternoon when the rockslide occurred.

About 30 cubic yards of rock and organic debris cascaded down a steep slope from 500 feet above the valley floor, according to a report written by Weber, the geologist. The material entered a dry waterfall chute that funneled the material to the crowd below at about 70 to 100 mph. Some of the rocks shot across the canyon and ricocheted off the opposite wall before falling.

"The entire area was a potential kill zone, with death and injury a random event," Weber wrote.

Wooden crosses were placed by the sign to Sacred Falls park in the days after the landslide. The park has remained closed since.

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The result was devastating.

"I'm driving up the road to the trail head, and all manner of people with all kinds of injuries are streaming down the road," said assistant fire chief Ken Silva. "It's like you're watching a war movie."

Hundreds of people mobilized to help the injured, from firefighters to helicopter pilots, police, military paramedics, medical personnel and hikers.

Rescuers were hampered by the large number of people injured in a remote location. And there were time constraints: The slide took place at about 2:30 p.m., and Silva wanted everyone out before nightfall.

The Honolulu Fire Department learned some lessons that day, Silva said. The department has a new command vehicle with better radio equipment and stronger handheld radios for working in remote areas, he said. It has strengthened relations with other agencies to be able to tap into their resources and staffing. Some weaknesses, such as having too few ambulances on the island, have been resolved, he said.

Events such as the one at Sacred Falls force the department to adapt and improve. "I feel I was fortunate to go there ... because of the tools I was able to put in my tool box," Silva said.

The state closed the hiking trail days later.

Hikers say they would like the falls reopened so they can make their own decisions about whether to go. Native Hawaiians want to be able to exercise gathering rights and cultural traditions at the falls.

Cathleen Mattoon of the Ko'olauloa Hawaiian Civic Club said Hawaiian groups throughout the community want the area open to perpetuate their customs. Showing respect for the land and the water, giving thanks for the things that are taken and learning to recognize the inherent dangers are all part of the lessons taught to children, Mattoon said. "These are things we can't show our children unless we take them there," she said.

Mattoon said she is aware of the dangers and accepts that rocks fall in the mountains and that rain can bring flash floods. Hawaiians are taught these things, she said.

Hikers are always in favor of open access to wilderness areas, including Sacred Falls, said Dayle Turner, a member and former president of Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club. Club members are informed about the potential dangers of a hike, including flash floods and rockfalls, he said.

The state is designing new warning signs for its trails and expects a risk assessment and analysis for Sacred Falls State Park to be completed soon. Once the reports are reviewed by the DLNR, a community meeting will be called to inform the public of the findings, said Tanaka, the state park planner.

Art Park, attorney for victims' families in the suit against the state, said the new signs probably will protect against lawsuits, but the state still has a moral obligation to stop people from going to the falls when it knows of the dangers. More should be done to inform hikers, Park said.

"It's reckless to let people go in there, but if the state is going to let people go in, it has to make sure they really understand the dangers," he said. He believes that if hikers are allowed in, they should have to sign waivers that outline the dangers, deaths and injuries that have occurred there.

Michael Forsch said if the falls are ever opened, he will be at the park protesting on opening day.

Forsch, who suffered brain damage and memory loss in the rockslide and had to relearn how to speak, said he would hibernate this Mother's Day, still struggling emotionally with his wife's death.

"I lived," he said. "That's not what husbands are supposed to do. They either protect their wives, save their wives or die with them."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the U.S. Geological Survey inspection team that assessed Sacred Falls after the landslide.