Woman who lost husband, friend in flash flood says visitor education needed

Local News

HANA, Hawaii (KHON2) – Two visitors died in flash flood conditions in Hana, Maui within a two week period.

On February 18, 26-year-old Shannon Benstead of Vista California was killed after a flash flood swept her out to sea at Waioka Pond.  

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Similarly, Sebastian Vargas and Angelo Ruiz were last seen hiking to a waterfall in flash flood conditions in East Maui on On February 27.

Ruiz’s body was found in the ocean the following day about 50 yards from where the stream he was believed to be hiking in drops.

Vargas has yet to be found.

Vargas, along with his wife, their 11-month old twins, his family and Ruiz, flew to Maui for a work trip.

His wife, Lailah Moridzadeh says the day before they were set to fly back home, they decided to seek out waterfalls in Hana.

According to Moridzadeh, Ruiz, the godfather of her and Vargas’ daughters, met a Maui resident on a couch surfing website and told them she would show them the spots ‘where only locals go.’

“That Saturday, my brother-in-law, Angelo, my husband and I met up with her and her friend and they took us down the Road to Hana. We made a stop at the Bamboo Forest and then we made a stop here at this hike,” she recalled.

“It was a very difficult hike, I’m from California so my hike is walking on a dirt road sipping a latte,” Moridzadeh laughed. She says the hike involved ropes and climbing through mud.

They arrived at a waterfall. Her husband took a video of them in the streambed.

“It sounds cryptic now, but at the time, he said ‘welcome to our final destination’ and he took a video of us,” Moridzadeh recalled.

Everyone made it back to dry land safely to eat lunch.

No one in the group knew there was a flash flood warning in effect for the area and that they were just standing and hiking in early-warning flash flood conditions.

“Angelo was really excited because he got to actually go into the waterfall and he got to feel the water pouring down on him and my husband didn’t, so Angelo told Sebastian ‘you really have to feel the waterfall, it was beautiful, you have to come,’” Moridzadeh said.

Vargas and Ruiz went back down the stream, while Vargas’ brother and Moridzadeh changed their clothes and took a nap in the car.

“I saw Angelo and Sebastian walking into the forest and I just said a prayer and I saw them walk into the forest and never walk back out,” she said.

Searchers would later find out that the men walked back to the waterfall at the same time the stream gauges spiked, indicating a flash flood.

About two hours later, Moridzadeh noticed the men hadn’t returned.

She says her brother-in-law went to go look for the two, while she drove to find an area with cellphone reception to call 911.

Moridzadeh says she showed a few residents the video of the water conditions they had been swimming in just before the men went back out.

“When I show the video to people they said that clearly you should not have been in there. This is our first time coming to Hawaii, how are we to know what any of the signs are?” she said.

Moridzadeh says she has never seen a flash flood before and figured the water was brown because of the dirt and soil on the ground.

“Beaches in California are brown because there’s dirt there, so I have nothing to compare it too. The water was flowing,” she said.

Most residents say it’s common knowledge to avoid hiking when it’s raining or when there are storm clouds over the mountain. Moridzadeh says the rain was on and off that day and she didn’t realize that thousands of gallons of water were gradually coming down the mountain towards them.

KHON2 asked Moridzadeh what a flash flood meant to her before February 27.

“When I heard flash flood, to me, I thought a downpour of rain. I didn’t know that waterfalls did that until one of the women at Garden of Eden showed me a video of a flash flood and she explained the water from the top of the mountain hits one waterfall and it cascades to the other and to the other. That is not common knowledge to someone that’s not from here or someone that doesn’t live here,” Moridzadeh explained.

“So, I had to see videos to understand. That’s what happened to them.”

Moridzadeh says she had no idea a woman from California was killed in a flash flood nine days before the men had gone missing just a few miles down the road.

“It wasn’t until I came here that I discovered that this is a really big issue. That a lot of tourists have passed away and there are a lot of drownings that happen,” she said.  “I think it’s really a lack of education.”

She says showing a safety guide on the planes heading to Hawaii would be a good start.

“A video that explains flash flood warning means avoid hiking if it rains, or if you happen to be in a stream and the water is brown then that’s a telltale sign a flood is coming,” she said.

“Honestly, I’m learning all of this now. This is not knowledge that I had beforehand,” she added.

“I honestly don’t even know what kind of knowledge locals have that we tourists don’t have, but maybe there are certain places to avoid and I think either a video, pamphlet or education can go a long way to save a lot of lives,” Moridzadeh said.

She says it’s an experience that no visitor ever expects to happen.

“You never expect to come on your first trip with your twins. This was their very first time on a plane and he missed their birthday by two weeks. They’re about to be one year old and he missed out on what was supposed to be the first of many trips,” she said. “Part of me thinks ‘is that what I’m going to have to tell my daughters? Your daddy and I took a trip to Hawaii which was supposed to be the first of many, but your dad passed away on your very first trip.’ I mean, how, like, that’s horrible to me.”

Moridzadeh called off the search for her husband on Thursday, March 4.

“What gave me peace is knowing that he’s in heaven and what gave me peace is just the different signs. The other day I was sitting in my room and then my daughter said, ‘Dad, dad, dad, dad, dad and she waved,’ and she only says that when daddy’s around, so just different things give me peace,” she shared.

On Sunday, March 7, Moridzadeh, her brother-in-law and mother-in-law had a ceremony at The Garden of Eden to thank the searchers for their hard work.

They also planted two avocado trees for Vargas and Ruiz and spread flowers in the streambed.

“What will Hawaii mean to me? Well, it’s a place that I’m going to come bring my daughters and say ‘your daddy was re-baptized here in the water. Let’s have some guacamole under this tree and overlook the ocean,” she said.

“’Daddy’s in heaven, but maybe some of his energy is here.’ I mean, that’s just me looking at the bright side in order to give me peace and to be able to let my daughters know their dad is an amazing man and he’s going to leave a great legacy. ‘We’re going to come here to the Garden of Eden, to heaven, to be able to celebrate your daddy,’” she continued. “So, that’s what Maui has now become for me. That’s what Maui now is to me.”

Because her husband has not been found, he is considered a missing person.

A GoFundMe has been created to help Moridzadeh and her twins. To donate, click here.

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