Only a tree came between life and eternity Friday for a 42-year-old Po’ipu woman driver whose compact car launched off Waimea Canyon Road near mile marker 11.
The automobile slid 175 feet down a side gulch that drops hundreds of feet into Waimea Canyon near an area known as Pu’u Ka Pele, ending up a tangled mess of metal wedged in a tree. Miraculously, the vehicle was snagged by the tree, and the driver landed alive.
The woman, whose name has not been released, may have sat in her car for up to nine hours before the wreck was spotted, according to a Kaua’i Fire Department account of the incident.
Waimea station fire Capt. Neal Hosaka said the driver’s injuries would have been fatal had her car not been stopped by the tree.
The tree prevented the vehicle from falling perhaps hundreds of feet more down the side of Waimea Canyon.
“She is very lucky,” Hosaka said.
Waimea station firefighters Butch Keahiolalo and Ehren Edwards rappelled down to the vehicle, stabilized it and extricated the woman from it, after responding to a call received at 4:45 p.m. Friday, Hosaka said.
Rescuers found the remains of the vehicle in a “twisted” condition, apparently the result of the vehicle slamming against the side of the cliff as it slid down it.
The woman was conscious when the rescuers reached her and tended to her injuries. She suffered a large cut on her forehead, a possible broken right wrist and a dislocated left shoulder, the fire captain said.
The two firefighters and American Medical Response medical personnel Cory Todd and Brian Ueno, who Hosaka said walked carefully down to the area where the vehicle was perched, tended to the woman’s injuries and put her in a rescue basket.
An Inter-Island Helicopter aircraft, with Lihu’e-based firefighter Gordon Tamura aboard and assisting, “long-lined” the basket to the highway.
The accident victim was taken to the Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital for treatment by an American Medical Response ambulance.
She was in serious but stable condition when she was medivaced to Queen’s Trauma Center on O’ahu early Saturday morning, according to American officials.
Hosaka said police reports stated the woman might have sat injured in her car for nine hours. If that is the case, the woman’s car probably went off the road some time between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Friday.
Officials said they not yet determine the cause of the accident.
A witness said it appeared the vehicle was traveling in a northerly direction, towards Koke’e, went off the road near a curve, skirting around the southern edge of a guardrail before going over the rim of Waimea Canyon.
“It was foggy and wet. There was dense fog and the road was slick,” the witness told The Garden Island.
The vehicle remains on the cliffline, maybe for good.
During the rescue operation Kaua’i police closed off both sides of the road at the accident scene.
Police allowed tourists to leave the area and allowed only people owning, using or renting cabins in the Koke’e and Waimea State Park complex to drive to their cabins, the witness said.
Other vehicles have plunged off Waimea Canyon Road and down the wall of Waimea Canyon. In 1920 Charles Wilcox and his niece died when their automobile slid off the then unpaved road. In more recent times, a young man reportedly attempting suicide drove off the road, landed on a ledge and lived. The road section where of Friday’s accident occured is located at about 3,500 above sea level.