Tragedy on Mauna Kea

First word came through a mountain staff mailing list used to let everyone know about safety conditions of the mauna…

Mauna Kea Wreck
A wrecked Toyota pickup truck about a mile below Hale Pohaku

Hawaii police dept. requests the public to avoid the Maunakea access road for the next 4 to 6 hours due to a major traffic accident. This accident is below the VIS on the access road. One lane is currently open going down the road.
– Mahalo from the VIS staff

Reading between the lines it is quickly obvious that this was a fatal accident and the police are doing a full investigation, the usual reason for such a long closure. Sure enough a notification soon came through the local emergency services alert system on my phone…

AVOID the Mauna Kea Access Road for the next 4 to 6 hours due to a major traffic accident. The entire roadway above the visitor center is closed while police conduct an investigation. – HPD Notification

A few more details showed up as messages flew back and forth on Facebook, this really is a small island sometimes. Knowing I would be up the next morning I expected to get the details first hand at breakfast.

7:50 the next morning we were climbing the last switchbacks to Hale Pohaku… Sure enough, right above that particular curve is the wreck of a white pickup, clearly a rollover. Which curve? We all knew which curve… About a mile below the VIS, a very steep grade the ends with a hairpin turn. This curve had claimed victims before, had this time, and will again.

We were surprised upon arriving at HP to learn there were two wrecks, not one. The white pickup was not the worst of it. As in the alert messages there was confusion about where the second wreck was, we were told above the VIS. Forgoing a leisurely breakfast I take our truck back down a mile and survey the wrecked white pickup.

Mauna Kea Wreck
A wrecked Toyota pickup truck about a mile below Hale Pohaku
Pretty spectacular, broken bits of vehicle everywhere. The truck must have rolled several times before coming to a rest. The airbags were all deployed, the windshield smashed out. This Toyota pickup was a very local vehicle, definitely not a tourist… A Defend Hawaii license plate frame and a truckload of snow slowly melting in the morning sunlight. Despite having been to the summit it was also clearly 2WD, not 4WD, easy to see when sitting on its side.

To my pleasant surprise there were no signs of traumatic injury in the cab. We learned later that the driver of the white Toyota pickup walked out of this wreck and greeted the arriving police.

It was the second vehicle that was associated with the fatality. A red 4WD vehicle that also wrecked this same evening in the same place. We learn later that it was carrying two French tourists, a pair of ladies traveling together. One was pronounced dead at Hilo Medical Center, the other was airlifted to Queens in stable condition. Names and details are being withheld to allow notification of relatives.

As the morning wore on even more details came out ahead of the official pronouncements…

OMG…an associate just called and the two girls involved in the Mauna Kea crash were our guests at Arnotts…they had rented a camper truck with a structure on top that folds out. Tragically one was killed in the accident and one is in Queens…They asked about activities to do and I had suggested the Volcano Park and asked them if the truck had 4 wheel drive…they were from Lyon in France and had planned to visit Kauai after the Big Island – FB post by Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott’s Lodge, Hilo

Facebook posts linked to a blog entry on Trip Advisor, there were several firsthand accounts posted there. Apparently there was no shortage of witnesses as at least one of the vehicles passed the evening crowd at the Visitor Information Station, the VIS…

We were there yesterday. We went up to the information center for the sun set and some star gazing. While just started looping at the stars people from the summit started comming down. At some point a 4×4 came down passing the VIS very very fast. Honking a lot. It bumped way to fast over all the speedbumps, even the voulenteers of the VIS were amazed. It looked like the breakes of the vehicle broke and there was no way to stop for them.. it didnt look like they were using low gear. Its a wonder they didnt hit anything else. it looked very scary. We drove down around 9 and our fear became true – User ID jltjsm in a post on Trip Advisor

The description paints a harrowing image, it is clear that the vehicle brakes had already failed. I am guessing they are describing the red 4WD SUV carrying the two women in the minutes leading up to the wreck. I am also guessing as they did not know the road they did not know there was no way they were going to negotiate that one fatal curve and ditch the vehicle earlier when it might have been survivable.

Brake fade is a scary thing, as the brakes are used they dissipate a great deal of the energy as heat due to friction. Once the disks get hot the pads stop gripping and the brakes do not provide any deceleration… You press on the pedal and nothing happens. I did this once, when I was young and foolish. Fortunately I was not on Mauna Kea and lived to tell the tale with nothing to show for it beyond slightly warped brake rotors and the lesson learned.

Same evening, save mountain, save curve, most likely the same cause. Sometimes the convergence of risk, chance, and probability leads to absurd results.

Apparently police were on scene for a previous accident when this one happened literally in front of their eyes…previous reports of one accident above VIS and one below were wrong…both were at the sweeping right turn at the bottom of the very steep paved section immediately below the VIS. FB post by Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott’s Lodge, Hilo

The curve where the two vehicles ended up is the worst on the summit access road, a hairpin turn at the bottom of a very steep grade. This curve has claimed vehicles in the past, including another particular Toyota pickup truck. This is the first fatality in my tenure on the mauna, at least on this particular curve. Many years ago two died in a very similar accident just above the VIS.

As we gazed at the wreck the truck conversation analysed the probable events. We figure that the driver deliberately ditched the vehicle into the upper embankment. The maneuver had to be considered a success. The vehicle is thoroughly wrecked, but by the accounts we received he walked away from it. Unfortunately the ladies were unable to replicate the maneuver, or simply failed in their roll of the dice.

The white pickup was still there as we headed down the mountain at the end of a long day. The entire episode is a visceral reminder that you can not take the mauna lightly. Mauna Kea is a welcoming environment much of the time, her beauty is unparalleled. She also harbors dangers for the unwary, the weather can turn on you, the altitude can kill you, and even the road down can kill. As we continue down the grade, leaving the wrecked vehicle behind, I listen to our engine whine in high revs… The proper way to drive down.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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