All in a day’s work

LIHUE — Kauai Fire Department’s Rescue 3 crew has made 150 air rescues this year, but it was one incident last April that earned it national accolades.

The Air 1 and Rescue 3 team that rescued 121 stranded people in the Kalalau Valley were recognized last week at the Fire-Rescue International conference in Dallas. The International Association of Fire Chiefs Motorola Solutions’ Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor is its most prestigious award for dedication to the duty in saving a human life.

Cpt. Gordon Tamura, Firefighter III Bryan Doo, Rescue Specialists Aaron Hawthorne and Adam Hussey, and Air 1 pilot Clifton Cates were nominated by one of the hikers they rescued. They were all in Dallas for the presentation.

“It was very humbling and an awesome experience,” Tamura said. “This is our job and we don’t do it for the recognition, and to get recognized for it is a very good feeling and excellent for morale. It also helps to bring awareness about what we do on a daily basis.”

Fire Chief Robert Westerman, Deputy Chief Blalock, and Battalion Chief Jason Ornellas were also present for the honor.

“It is an honor to lead a department with such high caliber employees,” said  Westerman, who was also awarded the Ben Franklin Leadership Award at the convention. “This crew is exemplary, and this award is a tribute to all the men and women of the Kauai Fire Department and Ocean Safety Bureau who save lives literally every day.”

The hikers were stranded when raging waters made the Hanakapiai Stream impossible to cross and trapped locals and tourists on the far side of the trail.

As Air 1 approached a group of 70 hikers near Hanakapiai falls, they learned of a family that had been washed downstream. As they pulled them out one at a time they learned more people were possibly washed downstream.

“We just flew to the waterfall to recon the stream and that is when we found three different parties up there,” Tamura said.

A man had attempted to get his children across the stream by hold their hands and sitting on his back. All but one sister got washed downstream. The girl and her mother got others to help rescue them at the next crossing.

One boy couldn’t escape the current but managed to make it to a bank on the opposite side of the river. His family on the other side coaxed him to stay put until help arrived.

“He was on the rocks for four hours before we got there,” Tamura said.

Air 1 couldn’t see the boy from the air because of the rock canopy and a rescue specialist was lowered on a line to direct pilot Clifton Cates using hand signals. As he got close, the boy grabbed Hussey before he could be secured to a line.

“He went all they way up to the landing zone unstrapped,” Tamura said. “I think that was the heroic part of the whole rescue.”

Battalion Commander Albert Kaui was on duty that day and handled the logistics of the rescue. In two hours, they were able to put 23 people across the stream one at a time and the remainder spent the night at Hanakapiai.

Two Rescue 3 personnel, Adam Hussey and Aaron Hawthorne, stayed behind. There were no medical issues and the hikers were somewhat provisioned with their own water and supplies and even started a fire to try and keep dry and warm.

“The people down there were really cooperative,” Tamura said. “I am sure they were hungry and cold but they knew the situation and listened well and were organized.”

Air 1 responds frequently to calls of hikers with twisted ankles or other walking injuries with the occasional tragic fall or drowning. Rescue 3 keeps provisions including blankets, food and water for one or two people that might be stranded overnight.

They were not ready with gear for 90 people and looking back, they might have called another helicopter to bring in water and provisions, Tamura added.

If the award does anything, Tamura said he wants people to see the value of

Air 1. 

“As the crew walked around the conference, complete strangers would stop to congratulate them on a job very well done,” said Westerman. “Kauai was recognized as having the best firefighters in the nation.”

It is the fire department’s second Ben Franklin Fire Service Award. In 2010, a Rescue  3 crew, under the direction of Rescue Captain Charles Metivier, was presented the award for battling unfavorable weather and unforgiving terrain to save the lives of two men involved in an ultralight crash in Hanapepe Valley.


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