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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 21, 2006

Deadly waterfall site increasingly popular

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writer

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A famous roadside Kaua'i waterfall where two women fell to their deaths Tuesday has been the scene of escalating risk-taking by a growing number of hikers, including some who clamber along the steep, slippery slopes near the waterfall with infants in packs on their backs, a longtime resident said.

"People do not listen to the warnings, and they still go down there," said Anita Perry, who has lived on Kuamo'o Road across the street from 'Opaeka'a Falls for 30 years. "We can't have a policeman around-the-clock there. They slip in there at night and stay all night between the trees there.

"They have even put ropes to climb down from the top of the falls, and it's wet and slippery all the time," Perry said.

There are warning signs in the area, and a spokeswoman for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources yesterday said the state plans to put up fencing to discourage more people from hiking to the falls. The area is part of the Wailua River State Park.

Elizabeth Ann Brem, 35, of Encinitas, Calif., and her cousin, Paula Gonzalez Ramirez, 29, of Colombia, died Tuesday after falling 250 to 300 feet from a cliff on an unmarked trail near the falls. The pair were vacationing together, said Kaua'i County spokeswoman Mary Daubert.

The women were found about 35 feet from the falls by two other hikers, who called fire rescuers at about 1 p.m., fire officials said. Fire officials removed the bodies by helicopter.

Brem was the mother of two children and a law partner in the Orange County office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, working in business and commercial law. She specialized in securities and corporate acquisition litigation.

Earlier this year, Brem was appointed by California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez as one of 13 members of the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that buys, protects and restores coastal lands. The conservancy has an annual budget of $53 million.

Brem was fluent in Spanish, graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1993 from Barnard College, and graduated from Yale Law School in 1996, according to the law firm's Web site.

WARNING SIGNS

Deborah Ward, spokeswoman for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the area has no maintained trails or state-sanctioned trails to the top or the bottom of the falls. State officials posted signs at a viewing area with railings after previous accidents at the site.

"We have signs there that say 'Danger,' 'Keep Out,' and 'Hazardous Conditions' because it's not in a maintained area, it's not a trail, and it's dangerous," she said. "We really want people to only go on maintained trails for their safety."

Ward said the state plans to fence the area that hikers have been using to reach the falls, but said people have ignored both fences and warning signs in other dangerous areas.

Perry said most hikers enter the falls area from Kuamo'o Road. There is no trailhead, and the hikers simply "look through the foliage and find whatever opening they can," she said.

From there they navigate a steep slope that leads to the top of the falls, and the women who died apparently followed that route, crossing the top of the falls before falling from a steep slope on the opposite side.

Kaua'i Fire Chief Robert Westerman said fire officials are called to that area a couple of times a year. "It's not a common call spot, but if it's a call there, it's usually because of a fall in the falls area," Westerman said.

The area is well-publicized in guidebooks and Web sites, including some that suggest people make the trek to the falls as a rewarding "hidden hike."

Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua'i Visitors Bureau, said her office has been contacting publishers of guidebooks and Web sites when the bureau learns the publications are encouraging visitors to Kaua'i to venture into dangerous areas or private property.

Some authors or publishers refuse to cooperate or make changes, and "the problem we're running into is free speech, so we can only make suggestions and hope they listen," she said.

STATE WARNING

Peter Young, chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, said through spokeswoman Ward that the state is involved in similar efforts to warn guidebook publishers who encourage tourists to try risky outings.

"We will continue to be in communication with Web sites and guidebooks to ask them to protect the resources and to keep people safe. They have a responsibility to keep people safe," Young said.

Perry, who lives across the street from the falls, said visitor traffic through the area has picked up dramatically over the years, and said the guidebooks aren't revealing any great secret.

"I don't know what they list it as, but it's not really hidden because it seems like everybody and his pet horse comes here to see it."

Neighbor Island Editor Christie Wilson contributed to this report.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.