The daring two-day rescue of 121 hikers stranded by a sudden flash flood along the Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast of Kaua’i, Hawaii, ranks as one of the largest trail rescues in island history. Facing torrential rain, gusting winds and rising waters, Rescue 3 of the Kaua’i Fire Department repeatedly put their own lives at risk to return all 121 survivors to safety.
The heroic actions of Rescue 3 are being lauded with the 2014 presentation of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ (IAFC) and Motorola Solutions’ prestigious Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor. For 45 years, the award has recognized first responders around the world for their expert training, leadership, heroic actions and safe practices.
Medals will be given to Captain Gordon Tamura, Rescue Specialists Aaron Hawthorne and Adam Hussey, Rescue Operator Bryan Doo and pilot Clifton Cates at the general session of Fire-Rescue International on August 14 in Dallas.
Two Days of Extraordinary Courage and Commitment by Rescue 3
It was a stormy afternoon on Sunday, April 6, 2014, when Rescue 3 received an alert that at least 20 people were stranded along the popular Kalalau Trail. Fast-rising waters had made the river impassable. Strong winds and torrential rain were imminent as their helicopter lifted off.
Landing at the trailhead, frantic bystanders reported that people were trying to cross the river on makeshift ropes. Rain had been hammering the steep trail, making it too slippery to reach safely on foot. Realizing that the only way in was by air—and despite dense forest, gusty winds and driving rain—Rescue 3 headed toward the river. As they reached a mountaintop, the dispatcher radioed, “At least three people have been swept into the stream.”
Immediately, Rescue 3 changed tactics and flew toward the steep river canyon. Dropping down through heavy canopy, they located a landing spot to reconfigure their helicopter for a long-line penetration rescue.
Rescue Specialist Adam Hussey raced down a hillside to locate more than 20 people. Among them was a panicked mother whose husband, 3-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son had been swept downstream. Strong rapids had pushed the husband and toddler in his backpack against a boulder where bystanders pulled them out.
The 12-year-old was carried further and perched on a tiny ledge in the canyon wall, unreachable by anyone on the ground. For over four hours, the river rose and was now inches from his feet.
Rescue Specialist Hussey radioed the helicopter and it lifted off with Rescue Specialist Aaron Hawthorne suspended beneath it. Hussey directed pilot Clifton Cates from the ground until the copter penetrated the canopy and hovered above the boy.
As Hawthorne tried to put a harness on him, the boy leapt into his arms. Hawthorne bear-hugged him and held him tight as they hit branches on the windy ride out.
After returning multiple times for 23 others, Rescue 3 learned that 98 people were stranded on high ground. With night falling and conditions deteriorating, their mission had to be suspended until daybreak. Captain Tamura sent Hussey and Hawthorne back in with provisions and first aid. They built shelters and fires and kept all 98 survivors safe and in good spirits throughout the night.
At dawn, the river was still too high to cross. Four survivors at a time and 25 helicopter trips later, Rescue 3 had transported a total of 121 people, ages 18 months to 71 years, to safety.
As one survivor has said, praising their selfless acts of courage, “I will never look at another firefighter the same way. I now intimately know the risks they take and the sacrifices they make to ensure the safety of others. That day, it was evident to all 121 of us, we were in excellent hands.”