In 2003, a flash flood swept two Halakeala National Park visitors over a waterfall to their deaths. The victims’ family sued, and the federal government has agreed to a no-fault settlement with a $5 million payout.
On April 10, 2003, Kevin Brown, a 39-year old high school chemistry teacher from Kentucky, was visiting Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park with his wife Holly, his daughter Elizabeth, and his son Clayton. That afternoon the family was on the Pipiwai Trail, one of the best hikes in the park (or on all of Maui, for that matter). The trailhead is very accessible, being close to the park’s Kipahulu Visitor Center. You can do the four-mile roundtrip on the Pipiwai in about 2.5 hours if you hurry, or about five hours if you take the time to savor the experience.
The Pipiwai Trail, which is named for a long-ago Hawaiian king, climbs moderately steep terrain (650 foot elevation change) above the `Ohe`o Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools). Along the way, the trail passes several waterfalls. One of these, Makahiku Falls, is located on the Ohe'o Gulch stream about a quarter mile or so above the trailhead.
Makahiku Falls is quite high – about 185 feet -- and so beautiful that it is a popular destination and turnaround for many hikers who don’t want to go all the way to the top. To see a map showing the Pipiwai Trail and vicinity, including Makahiku Falls, visit this site.
When the Brown family reached Makahiku Falls, they first enjoyed the view from an overlook (accessible via a spur trail) and then decided to hike to the bottom of the falls. To do this, they would have to cross the Ohe'o Gulch stream at a point above the falls. The task looked easy enough, since the water was shallow and reasonably slow-moving at the rocky place where they would cross.
Mr. Brown led the way. He waded out and positioned himself to help the others cross. Eleven-year old Elizabeth was the first to follow. Mr. Brown was helping his daughter across the rocks when both slipped. Seconds later, a six-foot wall of water engulfed the two and swept them downstream. Holly and Clayton, who narrowly escaped the rushing water themselves, could only look on in horror as Kevin and Elizabeth were swept over the falls to their death.
The victims’ bodies were never recovered. Days of searching yielded only Elizabeth’s bathing suit, which washed ashore on a beach over half a mile from the mouth of the stream.
The flash flood that killed Kevin Brown and his daughter seemed to appear out of nowhere. The main reason is that you can’t see very far up the stream course from where the Browns were positioned. The Ohe'o Gulch stream, which is confined to a narrow valley bottom, makes a sharp turn not far above the point where the Browns were crossing. The gathering flow, produced by drenching rain high up the mountainside, was thus hidden from the Brown family’s view until just before it burst upon them.
The grieving family filed suit, charging that the Park Service negligently failed to warn hikers of the flash flood danger. The federal government recently settled the case out of court for $5 million -- $2.6 million in cash and $2.4 million in structured payments.
No fault was admitted, and neither side is answering questions about the specifics of the negotiations that led to the settlement. However, it’s clear that one fact loomed very large in the matter. An electric sign near the trailhead that normally warns hikers of potentially dangerous stream flooding during high runoff periods wasn’t working on the fateful afternoon the Browns headed up the Pipiwai Trail.
Whether the Browns should have been aware of the hazard anyway is now a moot point, at least in the legal sense. Nevertheless, some people who know the Pipiwai Trail and the publicized facts of this accident insist that the Browns would have remained safely out of harm's way if they had recognized the obvious signs of a hazardous situation, exercised due caution, and stayed on the main trail.
No amount of debate on this and other points will bring the victims back. We at Traveler extend our heartfelt sympathy, however belated, to the family and friends of Kevin and Elizabeth Brown.
Postscript: At least nine people have been killed at the falls in the past 26 years.