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DOCARE Officer Remembers Sacred Falls Tragedy

May 10, 2020, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated May 10, 2:17 AM
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On Saturday, the victims of the Sacred Falls tragedy were remembered.

While patrolling the long-closed state park on O‘ahu, Officer Fagota Tataipu Jr. recounted the Mother’s Day 1999 Sacred Falls incident that cost eight people their lives and led to several more injuries. An unexpected rockslide at the waterfall, where all rockslides are unexpected, caught dozens of people completely off guard as they gathered around, and in, the fall’s broad pool.

“It’s one of those incidents in your life that you can never forget,” Tataipu said tearfully. “It’s one of those, that even though Mother’s Day is a special day, you can’t help but reflect back on 1999 when we came up here because of the rockslide and so many moms that lost their lives.”

Tataipu, a veteran of the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE), and other first responders that day risked their lives to go in to treat and evacuate the wounded. Then came the harrowing duty of carrying eight bodies out.

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This is why when he and other DOCARE officers cite trespassers, according to a DLNR press release. It’s not so much to penalize them but to get them to understand how dangerous a trip to the waterfall could turn out to be.

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On Saturday, a trio of DOCARE officers, including Tataipu, wrote citations to four more people for entering the Sacred Falls Closed Area or for violating COVID-19 Emergency Rules. There are no trespassing signs prominently posted and nearby residents often alert DOCARE when they see people sneaking into the park. Yet, people still come, often brazenly, DLNR said.

Saturday afternoon, as DOCARE Officer Jason Lee was exiting the park, he encountered a trio of young men who had crawled through an opening in a gate. He asked them if they had seen all of the signs. They had, but said they just figured they would not get caught. The DLNR said the men “got off easy” because they were caught at the beginning of the trail.

Sacred Falls. PC: DLNR

Earlier in the day, two officers hiked to the falls to check for other trespassers and pointed out a recent landslide that buried a section of the trail under tons of mud, dirt and rocks. Had people been on the trail when this happened, at some point within the past month or so, there could have been a repeat of the 1999 tragedy.

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Tataipu reflected on the children of the mothers who lost their lives 21 years ago.

“They are now about the same ages of many of the people we cite,” he said. “Little by little, we need to make people realize that there is a reason we call it Sacred Falls. The rocks are still falling.”

“Our job is to make sure that everybody is safe, not only for the people of Hawai‘i, but as well for our visitors,” Tataipu continued. “Make them understand that there’s a reason we closed this area.”

He added that the majority of those who are cited are grateful for the education, and he believes they get a tiny insight into what he and many others felt that day — and every day since.

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