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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 8, 2010

Maui firefighters come to aid of hikers stranded by rising river

By Lila Fujimoto
Maui News

WAIHEE A day after being carried by helicopter across a river that quickly rose in the swinging bridges area of Waihee, a New Jersey family was thankful for firefighters who responded.

"We feel like they saved our lives," said Lauren Federici. "They were amazing."

Federici, 48, her 52-year-old husband, David, their 16-year-old daughter, Shanna, and 12-year-old son, Matthew, were among eight people rescued Tuesday evening when they became stranded by rising waters while trying to hike out of the area.

Wailuku firefighters and a Kahului fire rescue crew responded to the 4:53 p.m. call, arriving at Waihee Valley Road at 5:16 p.m., said Battalion Chief Frank Tam. He said firefighters reached the two families of hikers, who were at the location of the first bridge, about a half-mile into the valley, at 5:42 p.m.

The first bridge had been taken down but the hikers had been able to cross the river earlier that afternoon before finding the water running higher than usual when they returned to leave the area, Tam said.

Lauren Federici said the riverbed had been dry when her family first crossed rocks, then reached the second bridge, which had "just a trickle" of water beneath it. They stepped on rocks to cross the river in a third location before reaching another crossing where the water was up to her mid-calf, she said.

Just one other family was still there when the Federicis began hiking out, with the water at the last crossing up to her waist, Lauren Federici said. She said the two families formed a "human chain" to navigate the crossing and eventually reached the location of the first bridge to find water "gushing."

"We didn't know each other, but we became friends," Federici said.

The other family, from Washington state, included a 43-year-old woman, her 50-year-old husband and two sons, ages 13 and 10, Tam said.

The group tried to make it across but became stuck in the middle of the rising riverbed and turned back, Federici said. Using her cellular telephone, she called a woman at the entrance to the area, where the family had paid $6 each for entry, Federici said.

After at first telling the visitors they would have to wait until the water subsided, the woman called for help, Federici said.

She said firefighters first reached the area by all-terrain vehicle. After deciding the water was too deep and too rough to try to walk people across, firefighters called in the helicopter, she said.

Rescue firefighters secured the eight hikers, one by one, into a basket suspended from the helicopter to transport them across the river to safety, Tam said.

"It was an adventure of a lifetime, and I guess I'll always have this memory," Federici said. "When you think about it now, we could have so easily got hurt or lost our lives going down that river."

She said visitors should be warned about the dangers of crossing with the first bridge out.

"It wasn't raining," she said. "How were we supposed to know water was going to come down like that? It was scary.

"I just think that these firemen were so wonderful. They were calm, professional."