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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Weary rescuers 'hope for the best'

 •  Kaloko dam safety fixture disputed

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Honolulu members of the Hawai'i Urban Search and Rescue Task Force continued searching for missing yesterday at Wailapa Stream.

Dr. LIBBY CHAR | Honolulu Emergency Services

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Hampered by torrential rains, massive piles of debris and a large, muddy search area, more than 30 rescuers have scoured the banks of Wailapa Stream hoping to find some trace of those swept away last week after the Kaloko Reservoir breach.

Since the evening of March 14, teams of firefighters, emergency medical technicians and dog handlers, each trained specifically to handle search-and-rescue missions, have been working from sunup to sunset on Kaua'i's North Shore. The effort also has included personnel and equipment from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Hawai'i Air National Guard.

Members of the state's Urban Search and Rescue Task Force so far have recovered three bodies, and continue to hold out hope for survivors.

"Nobody is willing to give up and we hope for the best," said Honolulu Fire Department Battalion Chief Ed Simeona, commander of the state task force, who personally aided in the search efforts on Friday. "We know what we would feel if we were on the other end. An event like this is catastrophic and this is our first time seeing devastation like this. It is definitely something we'll never forget. It's tough."

Simeona expects the search to end today, but that was not definite.

The task force members have broken up into two teams of 14 and worked their way down both banks of Wailapa Stream. Included in the group were five dogs and eight handlers.

"Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and (we) are committed to doing everything possible to find their loved ones," Kaua'i County Mayor Bryan Baptiste said yesterday. "We are apprised of the search teams' daily plans and greatly appreciate all the work they're doing. It's been a challenge for them to conduct a search with continuous rain."

After an early morning briefing with Baptiste at Kaua'i's Emergency Operations Center, the team headed to Wailapa Stream in a bus.

"We let the dogs hit the debris piles first to see if they had any interest," said Dr. Libby Char, director of the Honolulu Emergency Services, who was with the first team from Honolulu to reach the disaster site last Wednesday. "The amazing thing was to see the amount of destruction. Where before (the breach) there was heavy forest it looked like someone took a stream of water and blasted everything off those rocks. It looked strip-mined."

Except for three hours of dry weather, Char said her team of rescue workers was "soaked to the bone" while working.

Char was with the group of rescuers that recovered the first body at dusk in a forested area filled with mud, water and debris near where Wailapa Stream flows into Kilauea Stream.

"It's a mix of emotions at that point," she said. "It's sad. You don't have the hope that they're alive anymore but you know you can allow one family to grieve and get some sense of closure."

The first day out, workers used chainsaws, hacksaws and bare hands to clear piles of debris.

Forty-foot-tall trees had been ripped from the ground and hurled into stacks of debris. Workers would cut through the tops of large piles, then realized they were balancing over running water once the pile shifted with the cut.

Not wanting to risk injury or death, team members noted the location of debris piles where the dogs displayed interest and returned later with heavy machinery. But the rain dulled the scent for the dogs, slowing the pace.

"The biggest challenge was the weather," Simeona said. "We were doing searches in the pounding rain and covered, from head to toe, in mud."

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Gene McGuinness spent eight hours piloting a Dolphin helicopter over the debris field starting at 5 p.m. the night of the dam burst. Using night-vision goggles and information from data-gathering buoys, McGuinness and three crew members combed the area. The runoff from the stream and the debris field in the ocean was roughly 5 miles wide and stretched 6 miles out to sea, he said.

"I felt very bad for the entire community and the area and (also) knowing the possibility of finding a survivor would be difficult, just because of the size of the search area, the force involved, the amount of debris, and the condition of the first person we found," he said. "I've been flying in that area the last couple of years and, knowing it well, it was shocking to see the devastation."

Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.