I’m no stranger to dangerous situations when I travel. I’ve been robbed on a South African freeway at night. I’ve visited the hospital following a spill on a dirt bike in Belize. I spent two days in Indonesia so sick I thought I was dying. I’ve experienced a tropical storm in the Philippines. Now I can add fleeing to escape a flash flood to my list of terrifying travel adventures. My five friends and I learned firsthand that flash flooding in Maui streams is a very serious danger that can happen without warning (and without flash flood advisories).
The weather the past few days in Hawaii had been rainy on and off, but on this clear day we started the drive to Hana and stopped early on to do this waterfall hike called “Commando”. About halfway up the 2 mile hike it started to rain, but we thought that if we arrived at the waterfall and the water was running too fast, we could decide then not to swim. After a longer than expected hike, we heard the waterfall and arrived at a small to medium flowing stream. To get to the beach of the swimming hole we crossed a 6 foot wide stream of no more than knee deep water, and walked upstream just a minute to the beach. We stripped down to our swimsuits, I blew up a floatie tube, and set up my drone. Sean and AJ climbed up to the waterfall to prepare to jump, and I had my drone flying overhead to get the shot of them jumping. AJ was on the rocks halfway up the fall and Sean was hanging out on a big rock in the middle of the stream at the top of the 30-foot waterfall.
Then suddenly without warning there was an enormous rush of water coming over the waterfall, it had to have been instantly 50 times as much water rushing over, and the water was flowing fast. What caught my eye was the massive volume of water at the bottom of the fall churning over the surface of the pool, created by the power and volume of water that suddenly appeared. Those of us on the beach screamed to each other “WHERE’S SEAN?!?!”. There was no other option in my mind than that I had just seen our friend disappear and be killed, and there was nothing we could do about it. The water was rushing to the beach like a big wave to shore and we scrambled to grab our backpacks and cameras from getting washed away.
I knew the situation could at any moment turn life threatening (it already was), and my instinct to get the fuck out immediately kicked in. There was no way to cross the now raging river to the path we had hiked to get to the waterfall, I would have to climb the wild overgrown hillside (it was currently only a small river to cross to get to, a river where a river had not previously been). I was still operating my drone, but I wasn’t aware of whether it was recording or what it was recording, I was only concerned that it was hovering high enough to be out of danger while I climbed to higher ground. The drone was recording, and it captured the entire incident. As I climbed barefoot up the dense and soft, steep hillside of vines and grass and thick plant stalks I struggled to squeeze my way through while carrying my big Think Tank drone backpack on my back and holding my drone controller in one hand. Sean had reappeared from going over the waterfall and was safely(ish) on the same side of the water as I was.
There was no way to know how high the water would rise so I kept climbing. I thought that the rest of the group would be following behind me, but when I looked back they were on an island that had formed by the original creek (now a raging river rushing straight to another waterfall downstream), and the second smaller stream I had crossed which had now become fast moving as well and deeper than waist deep with no solid ground on either side, just grass. I didn’t know why they were hesitating, because the longer they waited the higher and higher the water would rise. I thought they may be trying to find a way to cross back to the other side, but there was no way I was going any way but up. I felt guilty that I had bolted so fast and they were still back on that island. I lost track of where my drone was several times, and the battery was running low. I flew it around and managed to bring it overhead and land it between the trees. I shouted down to Jason who didn’t know where I was, and while I was landing my drone he and Noah and Sarah had finally managed to cross the water after tossing all of their stuff (that hadn’t washed away) across to Sean. Jason had found a way across by grabbing on to tree branches overhead while navigating the chest deep water, and help Noah and Sarah across the same place. AJ was on the other side of the river entirely, he had jumped when the water first started to flood and immediately got out on that side. Once we were all safely climbing the hillside, we were met by a guy who had hiked down to the waterfall with us with his wife, and they were crossing the stream when the flooding started and ended up separated on opposite sides of the river. His wife was on the opposite side with AJ, so they hiked the 2 miles back down to the road while the rest of us climbed up to the very top of the overgrown hill.
Once safely on the top of the hill, Kevin the hiker we met on the trail, decided to call 911. (We would have probably waited a bit longer to see if the water receded and we could hike back on our own). The operator was able to get his location from GPS and description and then told him “you’re not getting back out, stay there and we’ll come get you”. We waited for less than an hour up on that hill before a helicopter arrived, flying back and forth over the river looking for us. Just as we thought they spotted us, they left again for about 30 minutes and we feared they hadn’t actually seen us. I flew my drone up and down just over the trees as I heard a helicopter in the area, just in case it might help them spot us. They were headed straight for us, with a rescue guy in a hanging basket.
The helicopter overhead felt like an enormous drone, the wind from the propellers was so strong it felt like it could blow us away. I had never been in a helicopter (much less took a ride in a basket hanging from a helicopter). The helicopter set down the basket and the rescue guy jumped out and helped 2 of us into the basket at a time. Sarah was terrified of going into the helicopter basket and went first with Kevin. When it returned just a few minutes later, I climbed in with Noah, and then we were gently lifted up and away. I recorded the ride on my iPhone, the landscape was so lush and green from above, with a nasty brown river tearing through the green. I felt like I was the camera being carried on my drone, it felt amazing. The basket landed as gently as it was lifted, right to where we had parked to begin our hike.
There were fire trucks and firefighters and rescue workers there to meet us, and give us a talking to about how dangerous it is to hike there. Regardless, they were really friendly and were just happy that we (and the other 6 people they airlifted further downstream before rescuing us) were safe. They said that we were the first to call, but the last to be airlifted, because they found 6 others in more dangerous places on the river. We were on the highest ground, so they left us to wait while they rescued everyone else and a dog. They said that the guidebooks recommend these hikes, but that they don’t warn you about how dangerous they can be. He explained that because of water diversions up in the mountains, rain water is funneled to this single stream, causing it to flood in seconds. These rescuers perform these rescues weekly, and they said that they were happy that on that day they were all successful rescues rather than retrieving bodies as they unfortunately often must do.
Stay away from streams and waterfalls along the Hana highway following any rain, even if the rain has subsided for the day. At the end of our drive to Hana we had hoped to swim at the Seven Sacred Pools in Haleakala National Park, but despite the water being relatively mellow the pools were closed due to the flooding danger.
Thank you to the Maui search and rescue team for your super speedy response, and being super friendly about it too. I hope that our story and video spreads awareness and prevents similar rescues from having to take place in the future.
Sean, Noah and Sarah on top of the hill waiting for our rescue.
Sarah, unlike herself, had very few jokes about the situation.
Sean and Jason awaiting our rescue
After I realized the drone had captured Sean being swept over the waterfall, we watched the footage on my phone.
We were relieved and slightly terrified to see that our way out was on a basket dangling from a rescue helicopter.
Me and my drone packed up on my back prepare for our helicopter ride.
From the basket Jason captured this shot of a lower waterfall on the same river.
Photos by Renee Lusano and Jason MacDonald