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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mākaha kids sent flying by dust devil


By Curtis Lum and David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writers

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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MĀKAHA More than a dozen fourth-grade students at Mākaha Elementary School were injured yesterday when at least one "dust devil" touched down and momentarily lifted them a few feet off the ground.

Paramedics treated 10 students injured at a city tennis court adjacent to the school before releasing them to their parents.

Witnesses said there were two dust devils taller than the monkeypod trees that surround the playing court and said they merged together moments before touching down where the students were.

"The whole class saw it and all the leaves started coming and all the dirt started getting in our eyes, so we tried to face the other way and everybody saw the other one forming so we got scared," said Enee Tiolu, 9, who was on the court at the time. "We ran all over and it started dragging everybody."

Dust devils look like mini tornadoes, but the two are unrelated, said Tom Birchard, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service Honolulu Forecast Office. Large dust devils do not turn into tornadoes and tornadoes do not lose power and break up into dust devils, he said.

Dust devils are fairly common in Hawai'i, but it is unusual for them to cause damage or injuries, Birchard said.

Dust devils are often generated when cool trade winds collide with warm onshore sea breezes, he said. That was possible yesterday with trade-wind gusts as high as 39 mph being recorded at Kahuku Point. The strong trades then blow up and over the Wai'anae Mountains and sometimes come barreling down through Mākaha Valley, Birchard said.

"In Hawai'i, dust devils can range from 1 foot to 100 feet to 500 feet," Birchard said. "A lot of them are clear and go unseen or they occur out in the middle of a field, not near populated areas."

Bryan Cheplic, spokes-man for the city Emergency Services Department, said paramedics were sent to Mākaha Elementary School on Ala Na'auao Place about 10:50 a.m.

School Principal Lynn Okamura said the injured students were part of a group of 25 fourth-graders who were receiving tennis instructions.

She estimated the dust devil touched down between 10:20 and 10:30 a.m.

"I wasn't there, but from what the custodian and the teachers told me, it was a nice sunny day with nothing amiss and all of a sudden they felt really strong winds they estimated to be in the 60- to 70-mph range," Okamura said.

PEOPLE SENT FLYING

The large dirt devil moved from the northeast side of the courts westward toward a residential area, witnesses said. Along the way it lifted up children, tossed bags and threw large trash bins.

Enee, the 9-year-old student, said she wasn't injured despite tumbling nearly the length of two tennis courts and winding up being pressed against a chain-link fence.

"I tried to run where it wasn't forming, but somehow it dragged me all the way to the gate," he said. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we're going to die.' My heart was beating so fast."

Sha-lyn Figueroa, 10, wasn't as lucky as her classmate. Sha-lyn was lifted about 3 feet into the air, thrown back to the hard court surface, and was sent tumbling from one end of the court to the other before being forced out of the gate down a grassy knoll.

Shantel Figueroa took her daughter to a nearby emergency room where a doctor said Sha-lyn may have suffered a mild concussion. The fourth-grader had several bumps on her head and had scrapes on her arms, legs and stomach.

"When I got to the school she was really, really dirty," Shantel Figueroa said. "I was like, 'What happened?' That's when all of the teachers were telling me what happened."

She said Sha-lyn may have injured her head when her daughter and a friend held on to each other.

"When they did that they ended up bumping heads because the wind was flying them," she said.

Sha-lyn said she and her friends were bouncing balls to each other on the court when they heard the trees rustling. The children saw the two dirt devils combine into one and before they could react, the funnel cloud was on them.

"The thing came out of nowhere," Sha-lyn said.

Most of the students ran; some tried to hold onto the fence. But the wind was so strong that it tore people away from the fence, including an adult student teacher.

"The thing lifted us up and threw us back down on the ground and we were tumbling down the hill," Sha-lyn said.

Shantel Figueroa said she's glad no one was seriously injured.

"I've never seen wind literally pick up people and fly them," she said. "But the teachers were saying it was really bad."

HELD IN BY FENCE

Principal Okamura said some of the students complained about scraped knees and elbows, and one of the boys said he injured his ribs. She said she believed the fence may have prevented students from being more seriously injured.

"Who knows, without those fences they may have been scattered all over," Okamura said.

As it was, tennis balls, tennis rackets and other equipment were flung around by the winds, she said.

"I've been the principal here for one year and the vice principal for nine years before that, and the custodian has been here for 20 years and neither one of us ever saw anything like that," Okamura said.

She said teachers and school staff members who went out to check on the students right after the incident did their best to stay calm.

"We've have a really good crew here. We knew if we didn't stay calm, that would transfer over to the kids. Of course, they were pretty shaken up and screaming," Okamura said.

After being examined by paramedics, several of the students had recovered enough to go back to class, and no serious injuries were found, she said.

Okamura added she may bring in counselors to school today to help students deal with the event. She said some sixth-graders were on the grass field next to the tennis courts and witnessed their schoolmates being tossed around like rag dolls.

The National Weather Service does not keep records on dust devils that result in damage, but Birchard recalled a recent incident at Mā'ili Beach Park in Wai'anae in which an inflatable jumping castle was blown into the ocean, resulting in the rescue of a child who was in it at the time.

There also were reports several years ago of a man who was injured when the golf cart he was in was hit by a large dust devil in the Kapolei area.

While tornadoes have been reported in Hawai'i, climate conditions yesterday were not the sort needed to generate a tornado, Birchard said.

Both Sha-lyn and Enee said they plan to return to school today. But Sha-lyn said she plans to stay away from the tennis court and play fields.

"I'm scared," she said.