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Aloha to a Hero

Hawaii Kicker Shannon Smith Died Saving the Life of His Coach's Son in a Kauai Whirlpool

July 05, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAPAA, Hawaii — It was on this side of paradise that a kicker led his football coach and the coach's son on a real-life Indiana Jones adventure through thickets and ferns to the locals-only waterfall not described at the visitors' center.

In retrospect, it reads like a campy B-movie prelude, 11 unsuspecting hikers trekking along the red-dirt, sugar-cane trail past Book of Genesis landscape, chit-chatting as they passed gun-blasted private property signs on the way to the secluded Slippery Slide at Waipahee on the island of Kauai.

It was Shannon Smith's desire to skydive into Aloha Stadium with the game ball next season and tee it up for opening kickoff. But last March 29, all he wanted was to show off the natural water slide he had frequented during his Swiss Family Robinson childhood.

Smith raced ahead of the group with 6-year-old Cody, freckle-faced youngest son of second-year Hawaii football Coach Fred vonAppen.

He tested the currents with a warmup slide, returned to the top, put Cody in his lap and pushed off.

Thea vonAppen, Cody's mother, arrived just in time to snap the photo: Cody's mouth agape in thrill-ride anticipation; Shannon's right forearm wrapped tightly across the boy's chest.

What ensued were terror, helplessness, Thea's fingernails ripping off on the rocks. For want of a three-foot piece of cord. Or a pocketknife.

"I felt like I was in a horror movie," Mike Law, one of the hikers, remembered.

Shannon and Cody dropped into the water, then surfaced in a panic. They had been sucked into a whirlpool. Experts in fluid mechanics later explained the vortex in terms of "tangential velocity," relating the interaction of water and pressure to squirting a high-powered hose into a bucket.

Thea vonAppen wasn't interested in the science.

"I was thinking, 'Cody's going to die here and I can't do a thing about it,' " she said.

But she tried, heaving herself down the falls only to be swallowed, feeling "like someone was pulling my feet down," as she and Smith, still clutching Cody, spiraled in what Law described as a "monster toilet bowl."

Thea, a triathlete, screamed for Fred, who tore off his jacket and also took the plunge--still wearing his tennis shoes. He soon was flailing with the others against the currents.

Tim Carey, Hawaii's quarterback, saw the look on Shannon's face, "felt I had to do something," and also threw himself in.

Throughout, Shannon kept Cody afloat, encouraging him to "keep his head up."

Recollections are clouded. Did Shannon hand Cody off to Thea two or three times? How many times did Shannon go under?

The area was so lush, it was impossible to break a branch worthy of extending to desperate hands. Chris Shinnick, a Hawaii defensive back, discovered as much as he banged a jagged rock on a guava tree.

Thea prepared to die.

"It was really peaceful," she recalled. "I thought, 'Well, that was easy.' You think funny things."

Shannon, fading fast, held Cody afloat with both arms as he sucked for air. Somehow, he passed Cody to Thea, who passed him to Fred, who passed him to Carey, who got Cody to shore. Kristan, Thea's 17-year-old daughter, used a scrawny branch to rescue her mother. Fred made a last, life-saving frog kick and latched onto a rock. Carey managed to swim his way out.

But Shannon Smith was gone.

Thea called 911 on her cellular phone, but Shannon's fate was sealed. It took scuba divers, harnessing themselves to ropes fastened to guava trees, 90 minutes to recover the body from the 20-foot-deep pond.

"A hopeless situation," Carey remembered.

The bruise on Smith's head led the medical examiner to conclude that he knocked himself unconscious on a rock as he made one last kick to the surface.

He drowned the day before Easter. He would have turned 21 on April 1.

Smith's mother, Rosemary, was shopping for his present at the time.

Shannon was expected to be the starting kicker for the Rainbows this season.

Fred vonAppen can never forget.

"I feel a degree of responsibility," he said. "Perhaps if we hadn't been there, if [Shannon] hadn't been compelled to show us his island. . . . As a coach, you're responsible for everything. I know a lot of that is counterproductive, but we'll never get over this. Cody, because he's 6, has no future or past, at least in his perception. We do. It's a haunting reminder how fickle it all can be, how quickly a pleasant, exciting moment can turn to tragedy."

There probably is nothing more anyone could have done to save Smith, but all who were there say he died a hero.

"He consciously gave up his life to save Cody," Carey said.

The vonAppens know why they entered the treacherous waters. Cody is their son. Why Shannon Smith risked his life to save someone else's son has given his story a remarkable afterlife.

"It would be tragic if Shannon died in a car accident," Noah Evslin, Smith's best friend, said. "But there is a sense of incredibleness that someone would do this."

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