Feb. 23--HAENA, Kauai --Firefighters battled high winds, drenching rain and fast-moving streams Friday to shepherd 54 hikers who had been stuck overnight in Hanakapiai Valley to safety, in what several first responders said was a treacherous rescue that could have quickly turned bad.
First responders also recovered the body of a hiker in her 40s who was swept away by high waters in Hanakapiai Stream on Thursday.
Hikers who were rescued Friday morning described a harrowing scene at the popular hike on Kauai's North Shore, as the woman was caught up by swiftly moving currents when she tried to traverse the swollen waterway.
As many as 20 hikers, including the woman's fiance, stood on the banks of the stream as fast-moving water swept the woman downstream. Eyewitnesses said they were helpless to assist her.
Hiker Eric Wolfbrandt, 51, of Phoenix, and his wife, Myrna, shed tears as they recounted what they saw.
"We couldn't do anything," Eric Wolfbrandt said, adding that the water appeared to be about 4 feet deep and the woman was a little more than 5 feet tall.
The woman was crossing the stream with the help of a rope, then slipped or was pushed over by currents.
"She was underwater and holding on (to the rope) by her fingertips," Wolfbrandt said, before she lost her grip.
Moments later the hikers watched in horror as the woman appeared to regain her footing, only to be swept over again.
Trouble on the trail began at about 4 p.m. Thursday when firefighters were notified that a large number of hikers, mostly tourists, were unable to traverse Hanakapiai Stream because it was so high.
Hikers said the waterway, littered with large boulders, appeared to swell within minutes.
Deputy Kauai Fire Chief John Blalock said it's not unusual to see scores of people hiking in Hanakapiai Valley on a weekday afternoon. What is unusual is that so many would get stranded so quickly by rising waters.
He said the "sheer number of people" who needed to be accounted for was a significant challenge.
Making matters worse, the conditions were treacherous: Rescuers and hikers were pelted with rain and lashed by wind.
"Even for one of my senior rescue firefighters, this is one of the most hair-raising rescues he has done," Blalock said.
When firefighters got to the valley Thursday afternoon, they found dozens of hikers scattered in several spots along the trail.
It quickly became clear that flying them all out before nightfall was impossible. Instead, firefighters opted to shelter the hikers in place. About 20 hikers who were stranded on an "island" --a tiny patch of land surrounded by rushing waters -- were flown to a safe area on the trail, where the others had also been directed to walk.
And that's where everyone spent the night.
Two rescue specialists also stayed overnight in the valley with the hikers, who tried as best they could to remain warm as temperatures dropped to the low 60s.
Hikers said they built structures with tarpaulin and gathered around campfires.
"It was cold and rainy and miserable," said Hannah Ko, 27, of Los Angeles.
Still, the group tried to make the best of things, entertaining each other with stories and songs.
"Everyone shared food and water. Everybody huddled together" as they waited for day to break, said Susan Williamson, 45, of Friday Harbor, Wash. She was with her 17-year-old son and some friends on the hike.
Williamson said in the wake of the episode, she has learned just how rapidly conditions can change in the islands, especially on a mountain trail.
She had hiked Hanakapiai Valley before and never gotten into trouble.
Dan and Karie Costin of San Francisco had wide smiles on their faces after they drove away from the hike Friday morning.
They were cold, wet and hungry. And to make matters worse, their rental car had been broken into at the trail head; their passenger window was smashed and a pair of shoes taken.