Living Risky In Paradise

Gerald Kosaki’s safety tips for island explorers.

News Writer Gina Selig
Photographer Zach Gorski

risky paradise

“Forty-six percent of all deaths are caused by drowning…” - Battalion Chief Gerald Kosaki

Gerald Kosaki, a battalion chief for Hawaiʻi County, recently appeared on campus to discuss the benefits of risk management. He has been with the Special Operations Bureau for 27 years and oversees fire rescue, hazmat, and ocean safety.

“I started in 1989 as a paramedic. I’ve also worked with the rescue company and then South Kohala on the paramedic helicopter. I later worked with the hazmat unit responding to hazmat incident and then the training bureau. Now I’m in my current position since 2009.”

One of Kosaki’s goals is to reach out to as many members in the community as he can to spread hazard awareness in Hawaiʻi. One of the things he wants people to be aware of is the difference between a hazard and a risk so they can be more easily recognized and or avoided.

“A hazard is a situation that poses a threat to life, health, property, or the environment. A risk is a situation involving exposure to a hazard.”

Hawaiʻi has long been one of the top vacation destinations in the United States. However, paradise can still have a price. Kosaki explains, “There are so many exciting things to do here, but there is a price in that risk. Deaths happen at many sites, both first timers and people that know the area.”

Among all the activities that people enjoy in the Big Island, the most dangerous is swimming. “Forty-six percent of all deaths are caused by drowning, and of that drowning the most frequent cause is from snorkeling,” says Kosaki. Shoreline activities have their different risks, but the main thing to do Kosaki says is, “Never turn your back on the ocean.”

South Point is another area on the island that requires risk management. To many individuals, jumping off is a rite of passage, but there is no doubt that risk is involved.

“Swimming here is not recommended due to the current. This current is called the Halaea Current, named after a chief who was carried off to his death. One time we were looking for a missing person who fell in the water. The next day after the tide came in, we saw him washed on the rocks. The ladder is very old, a lot of people climb up it and eventually the ladder will fail. The tide goes down to the point you can’t reach the ladder and when that happens, the only way to get up is to climb up the rocks. It’s hard to climb up and many people slip and fall.”

Tide pool exploration is another risky ocean activity. There are slippery rocks, unstable footing, and rogue waves that can take out even the fittest individual. This past July, a 46-year-old male drowned trying to save his 6-year-old daughter; he was an avid surfer and bicyclist.

Hiking is also another activity that poses its fair share of hazards. There are trails can be narrow, damp, slippery, and can have falling debris and unpredictable weather.

Kosaki explains,

“Many times, we must wait until morning because we can’t find them at night. On top of that, sometimes it rains, and there are flash floods so we would have to airlift. The worst is when people try to cross the river and end up drowning. You hear all these stories of lost hikers on the news. However, that is probably one-fiftieth of all that happens.”

The main problem is that hikers can easily wander off the trail and it is hard for them to get back on it.

“There was a hiker that went all the way up to the snow on Maunakea without the proper apparel. We searched for five or six days, the fire department had teams that couldn’t find him. Six months later his bones were found in a cave crevice.”

Lava viewing can also have its risks. There is unstable footing, lava tubes, and the chance of getting lost.

“People think they’re walking out, but they are walking further in and helicopters can’t always see them. You can walk for miles and by the time you look around, the way back is unclear. Many think they are walking out but they end up walking further in. When you’re on the lava it’s easy to think that helicopters can see you right away, but it’s much harder to spot individuals because of the glare and how easily people blend in. If you’re going to go in there, take a mirror or something reflective.”

It is also easy to become dehydrated very fast. This can lead to fatigue or even passing out.

“We had this one guy who was sitting in the steam vent. He got dizzy and almost possibly passed out. When we went down to get him but was already dead. He was basically steamed to death. There a lot of visitors who think the vents are medicinal, which is not true.”

Accidents can even happen to trained professionals, and other individuals who have had close encounters with rough terrain.

“Captain’s Trail is a trail that is by the volcano area. We had a person missing here. One of our rescue guys fell 100 feet in a lava tube. He was lucky that he had a backpack and a helmet on. Even our rescue guys can run into problems. It can happen to anyone. One of the major problems is that people go to the places by themselves.”

With these posing threats, some may feel it’s just easier just stay indoors. However, Kosaki stresses that the key is to become aware of what is the most dangerous. For questions about hazards in a certain area, the best people to ask are public officials who know the area.