19 years after the Sacred Falls tragedy, will the park ever reopen to hikers?


Folks seeking hiking adventures sometimes take risks and go where they’re not supposed to.

Sacred Falls in Hauula in Windward Oahu has had its share of rescues over the years, despite being closed since 1999.

Sacred Falls used to be one of the most popular hiking spots on Oahu. As many as 70,000 people a year made the trek through the lush valley to get to the famous waterfall and swimming hole.

But on May 9, 1999 — a day to celebrate mothers — Mother Nature unleashed her fury.

“Looked up real quickly and an avalanche obviously came over us, started pelting the ground, everybody started screaming running, doing what they could to get out of there,” said survivor Ed Nichols in 1999. 

He along with about a hundred other hikers had been at the base of Sacred Falls, when it started raining rocks, trees, and boulders the size of cars.

“There was a lot of hurt people, some looked like they were pretty bad, lot of kids crying and screaming.  I just tried to get people to move out of there if they could because I kept thinking maybe more rocks would fall,” said witness Mart Hutnan in 1999.

The landslide killed eight people, including 24-year-old Sara Johnson of California.

“She always told us I love you mommy, I love you daddy. She always hugged us. She always had big hugs and kisses. She knew we loved her,” said Sara’s mother Katie Johnson in 1999. 

Sara’s best friend, Jennifer Johnson and Jennifer’s brother Mark Johnson were also killed in the landslide. Sara and Jennifer were in Hawaii to attend Mark’s graduation from Chaminade University.

“I went up into Sara’s room. I didn’t touch anything. I just cried. I just asked myself how can I be here and she’s out there alone. And it’s still difficult,” said Sara’s father Jack Johnson in 1999.

Also killed: 31-year-old Aaron Bann and 38-year-old Donna Forsche of California, Terri Zerebeski of Canada, Master Sergeant Scott Huling, who was stationed at Hickam, and 7-year-old Danielle Williams.

More than 50 others were injured.

Since that tragic incident Sacred Falls State Park has been closed.

KHON2 asked state officials if Sacred Falls will ever be reopened to the public.

“Very very low. It’s a complicated metric in terms of looking at Kaluanui, which is the valley and Sacred Falls. There’s literally no safe place when you’re in the basin where the pool and waterfall is. So any rocks coming down, there’s nowhere to hide. There’s no way to prevent getting hit. So that plus the cultural concerns of the fact that Kaluanui is a very special place for our host culture,” Department of Land and Natural Resources state parks administrator Curt Cottrell said.

It’s an area associated with the pig demigod Kamapua’a.
Despite the warning signs, people continue to trespass — finding out about this place through the internet and social media. People risk their lives and the lives of first responders who have to rescue them if they run into trouble.

“When the event happened 19 years ago, God I can’t believe it’s been 19 years, it was during a drought situation, which you would think would be the safest. But that allowed for the shrinkage of the soil, which made the area unstable. So heavy rain, it’s unstable. Severe drought, it’s unstable, so it’s just a land in motion,” Cottrell said.

The DLNR made a video three years ago to warn people about the dangers, and people who go to Sacred Falls State Park can watch it using a QRC code they find on a no trespassing sign.

Cottrell said reopening the park would take lots of money to pay for the infrastructure, staff and guides.

“I don’t know if we could ever restore full access to the water, but we might at least be able to view the waterfall from safe distance. But there’s flash flood issues also. So it’s just very unstable. It’s a shame it’s closed. Right now the risk and cost is just greater than any opportunity to reopen it,” Cottrell said.

If you’re caught trespassing at Sacred Falls, you’ll have to pay a fine of up to $100. Plus, they could take it before the Board of Land and Natural Resources, tacking on a civil fine of up to $2500.

Since 2015, officers have given out more than a hundred citations to people trespassing at Sacred Falls.

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