$2M awarded in Maui death suit

July 12, 2007

Safety measures were installed only after the second fatality at the famous Oheo pools

By Debra Barayuga / dbarayuga@starbulletin.com

Kevin Oakley tried to save his 7-year-old son when both were caught in a deceptive current while wading at Seven Sacred Pools.

Both were swept into the churning ocean, where the boy was rescued. But Oakley, 41, drowned some 45 minutes later after bystanders unsuccessfully tried to reach him.

That was in August 2003. Today, Oakley likely would be alive had Haleakala National Park adopted recommended safety measures after an earlier drowning, said attorney Wayne Kekina.

The federal government agreed last month to pay Oakley's family $2 million to settle a negligence suit, Kekina announced yesterday.

Oakley's wife, Michelle, and their children, Brielle and Austen, are grateful that the National Park Service has taken steps to avoid future tragedies like this, Kekina said.

Since Oakley's death the Park Service uses the U.S. Geological Survey gauge on the Internet that is available in real time to monitor levels in Palikea Stream and close the pools when the water flows at a rate of 10 cubic feet per second.

When Oakley, not a strong swimmer, entered the stream, the flow was 40 cubic feet per second and rising, Kekina said.

The Park Service also has installed a new gate and signs at the access stairway to the lower pools to keep visitors out whenever the water reaches dangerous levels, he said. They also reinstalled life preservers that had been removed before the Oakley accident because they kept getting stolen, Kekina said.

Park spokesman Dominic Cardea said the park is always looking for ways to improve safety.

As part of an ongoing safety initiative, visitors can now call the Visitor Center at (808) 572-4400 to check whether Oheo Gulch, the pool area of the park, is open or closed due to dangerous conditions.

In early 2002 a visitor from New York, Xina Wang, drowned after she became caught in a similar current in the same location and was washed out into the ocean.

Visiting U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie awarded Wang's husband and her estate $2.3 million after finding that park rangers knew of unexpectedly strong currents in the pools when the stream is elevated.

According to park figures, an average of 100,000 visitors a month visit the area, formally known as the Pools of Oheo, in the summer.

For the past 15 years, the park has been de-emphasizing the swimming experience at the stream, which became popular with visitors to the Hotel Hana-Maui in the late 1950s, Cardea said.

The popular name for the area, Seven Sacred Pools, calls to mind a swimming hole, not a river, he said.

"It is a wild and scenic river and can change really quickly," he said, adding, "Your safety is your responsibility, so take it seriously."

A vast majority of the nearly 30,000-acre Haleakala National Park is wilderness, and officials try to use the minimum amount of management necessary to keep it in that state.

"Not that we won't do rescues or patrols, but to expect someone to get help to you right away is not realistic," Cardea said.