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Hawaii Slide Leaves Torn Lives in Its Wake

Tragedy: Placentia man died protecting his wife. Many victims were Californians.

May 12, 1999|ELEANOR YANG and PETER M. WARREN and PHIL WILLON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cindy Bann refused to budge.

With boulders still crashing down the Hawaiian mountainside, rescuers had abandoned her husband amid the rubble, afraid they'd be crushed trying to save a man who was clearly beyond help.

Aaron Bann--her high school sweetheart, husband, and the father of their 2-year-old daughter--had just moments before shielded her from a slab of the volcanic mountainside that tore loose and swept through one of Hawaii's most picturesque tourist spots, the Sacred Falls.

It was Mother's Day, Sunday afternoon, and the Placentia couple had just hiked two miles to see the spectacular 90-foot waterfall, a special thrill as their vacation wound down. It would be their final trip together.

"She wouldn't leave him," said Dr. Geoff Scott of Anaheim Hills, one of the first on the scene of the most deadly landslide ever in Hawaii. "I had to get some bystanders to force her out of the danger area."

Aaron Bann and at least six others were killed on Sunday when a landslide at Sacred Falls State Park in Hauula sent car-sized boulders crashing down on weekend sunbathers at the foot of the waterfall, tucked away in a tropical gorge. Many were Californians on holiday.

Witnesses watched as Bann, 31, died while protecting his wife from the tumbling rocks.

"He was a hero," his grandmother, Shirley Berko, said Tuesday.

Scott said Bann was left behind because he appeared beyond help, and dozens of others were injured and required immediate care. Some had stopped breathing or had no pulse and one had an extreme head injury.

Scott and his family were 50 yards from the falls when the landside hit. At first, he thought the roar was a flash flood. Only when he ran to the scene and saw the devastation did he realize what had happened.

The Anaheim Hills doctor raced to the bottom of the falls and found dozens of bloodied tourists.

"The worst horror movie you can imagine pales by comparison," said Scott, a senior resident in head and neck surgery at UCI Medical Center.

As rocks continued to tumble from the 600-foot slope, Scott organized healthy survivors to move the most severely injured from the fall zone. Rescue teams were still half an hour away. Scott, an emergency-room veteran, was the only physician on the scene.

Rescue workers said Scott's quick action probably helped save lives, but the surgeon said many others at the scene deserve just as much credit.

"It wasn't me. It was everyone," Scott told reporters Tuesday. "Together, we saved two or three people."

Cindy Bann, 31, injured her leg in the landslide and is expected to be able to return home in two to three weeks. Meanwhile, the couple's daughter, Alexis, will continue to be cared for by her grandparents.

Aaron Bann and his wife were on a five-day vacation in Hawaii to visit friends who had recently celebrated a wedding. Hawaii was one of their favorite destinations because they loved the outdoors, where they hiked, golfed and played tennis.

Aaron Bann had been working at a family property management company for several years. He went back to a Claremont College to get an MBA and would have graduated Saturday.

"He was always a good student," said his mother, Bonnie Bann of Anaheim.

Neighbor Bilkis Dadabhoy, 29, remembers seeing the family last year at an Independence Day block party.

Aaron and Cindy Bann were teaching Alexis how to paddle and kick in the pool.

"They were having so much fun together. They seemed so content," Dadabhoy said.

The couple started out as high school sweethearts. Grandmother Berko called them Barbie and Ken because of their petite size and shared good looks. They dated seven years and were married another eight.

"He was, first and foremost, a family man," his mother said.

Along with Bann, those killed were: Jennifer Johnson, 24, of West Hills and her brother, U.S. Navy radioman Mark Johnson, 30; Donna Forsch, 38, of Elk Grove, Calif.; Terri Zerebeski, 42, of Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada; and Air Force Master Sgt. Scott Huling, 36, who was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base near Honolulu.

Hawaiian authorities said Sarah Johnson, 24, of Hayward, Calif., was still missing and presumed dead. Her boyfriend, hospitalized with a broken leg, reported her missing. It is unclear whether she was related to the victims from West Hills.

Rescue workers searching for more victims used military dogs and a chopper with thermal imaging devices, but they detected no one under the rubble. Authorities abandoned the search Monday, fearing the unstable mountainside would tear loose again.

Lance Fairly, a 38-year-old artist who lives near the park, said the early afternoon landslide hit at the peak time of day for tourists.

"It couldn't have been at a worse time of day," said Fairly, who ran to the scene just as rescue crews were arriving.

"It looked like one of those disaster scenes you see on TV. . . . like a plane crash."

Immediately after the slide hit, the survivors banded together and began pulling others from the rubble.

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