Story by Alan McNarie
Photos by Josh McCullough
On a rainy late afternoon in an off-limits area of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Nainoa Keana‘aina stands in a helmet and coveralls beside a bright red stretcher. The stretcher is hooked via a neon orange rope to a small silver chopper 150 feet away on a helipad. The chopper’s whirling blades accelerate to a roar, battering Keana‘aina with a minihurricane. The craft rises slowly, taking up slack on the line and moving directly over the stretcher, which also begins to rise. When the stretcher is about three feet above the ground, Keana‘aina begins to ascend, too; he’s clipped onto the same line. He bends his upper body slightly and brings his knees up a little, balancing himself so that he and the stretcher float as one. He stays as still as possible to avoid swinging and setting off a pendulum effect that might ricochet him into a cliff face.
Keana‘aina, who is in his late 20s, is the youngest member of the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park Search and Rescue Team, and he is embarking on his first “short haul” helicopter rescue—and this is not going to be an easy mission. The 150-foot rope is the team’s longest and most dangerous; the longer the rope, the more it might swing. It’s in use today because pilot David Okita of Volcano Helicopters — the only pilot certified to do short-haul missions in the park— must lower Keana‘aina down the 115-foot cliff face in front of Volcano House to the site where 73-year-old Osachy Harry has lain since he climbed over a stone wall and fell the day before.
The only reason that this is a rescue mission and not a body retrieval is ‘uluhe: a vining native fern that forms a thick forest understory. ‘Uluhe cushioned Harry’s fall — but it’s also hindering his rescue. No one saw him fall, and the nearly impenetrable mass of ferns concealed his presence until a hiker on the nearby Halema‘uma‘u Trail heard his calls for help at 4:45 this afternoon. Now dusk is rapidly approaching, and because the chopper doesn’t fly at night, the Search and Rescue (SAR) team needs to get the injured man out fast.
Keana‘aina’s boss, SAR coordinator John Broward, was lowered earlier with a medical kit. When Keana‘aina and the stretcher make it safely down the cliff and come to rest in a mass of fern, Broward’s lanky, six-foot-three frame is kneeling over the victim, assessing his injuries. The young ranger unclips from the line and thrashes through the fern to join them. Harry is jammed against the cliff and still partly buried in the tangle of ferns. There’s no level place here to lay the stretcher; Keana‘aina and Broward have to disentangle Harry and carefully roll him onto a backboard, with one ranger controlling Harry’s body while the other turns his head at the same time to avoid aggravating any spinal injuries. The two then maneuver his immobilized body onto the stretcher. Next Broward hooks back up to the chopper with Harry in the stretcher beside him, and the two ride up the cliff; once again the rescuer holds his body expertly to avoid swinging into the cliff face. An ambulance waiting at the heliport transports Harry to the Hilo Medical Center, where’s he’s diagnosed with pelvic and shoulder injuries, numerous scrapes, dehydration and an extreme case of lucky-to-be-alive.