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In late August 1997, Daniel Sayre set off for the 500-foot Kapaloa Falls in the back of Pololu Valley on the rugged north shore of the Big Island.
The 25-year-old wanted photos of his “cathedral” to take with him back to college on the mainland. But that all changed in an instant when he fell off the trail, plummeting hundreds of feet onto a rocky ledge near the falls.
He was lying there motionless when a rescue team from the Hawaii County Fire Department joined his parents in the search.
After 10 hours of trying to reach him through the dense forest and steep cliff walls via helicopter, the mission was called off. But Frank Sayre and Laura Mallery-Sayre refused to leave a nearby lookout without knowing if their son was dead or possibly just unconscious.
The rescue crew members volunteered to continue working and one of the island’s best pilots, David Okita, arrived to lend his expertise. They lacked ropes long enough to rappel, so their only option was a risky helicopter maneuver similar to one that had killed a search team two years earlier on Oahu.
Okita was finally able to maneuver close enough to drop off two fire rescue specialists, Clarence Young and James Kuniyoshi, who were suspended from a cable attached to the helicopter.
“It was so tight that the prop wash was knocking leaves off the trees in the valley,” Frank Sayre said in an interview earlier this month at the family’s home just north of Kailua-Kona, where they owned a dental practice.
Young and Kuniyoshi arrived to find Daniel had died. They radioed the news to his parents before loading his body onto a rescue litter harness attached to the helicopter.
Okita flew the body out of the valley and the Sayres went to the hospital to identify their son.
“We knew they were putting their lives on the line for Dan,” Laura said. “How do you thank someone for that?”
The Sayres soon learned the county had no program to honor rescue personnel who go above and beyond the call of duty.
In the midst of their grieving, they also wondered why the Fire Department did not have ropes long enough to rappel into the island’s deep valley, a safer option than using a helicopter in some circumstances.
“Why on earth did they not have the rappelling ropes?” Laura said. “These canyons and valleys have been here for thousands of years.”
She and her husband decided to buy two sets of rappelling ropes for the county — one for the Hilo side on the east and one for the Kona side on the west — at about $1,500 apiece.
And so began the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation, which will mark its 20th anniversary this fall at the annual dinner that Laura and Frank put on to honor the year’s most outstanding emergency responders and raise money for equipment and training beyond what’s included in the Fire Department’s budget.
To date, the foundation has raised more than $1.5 million to benefit firefighters, rescue personnel and — especially in recent years — lifeguards.
“It’s a drop in the bucket to what they really need, but it has helped,” Laura said.
The department’s “wish list” has only grown over time. Its most recent requests totaled $84,000, but the foundation has been able to help meet the need each year.
A huge silent auction is part of the annual dinner at the Fairmont Orchid, which donates the use of its ballroom. Artists contribute paintings, hotels provide vacation packages, restaurants offer gift certificates and many others donate what they can for the event, which several hundred people attend.
“It’s not Frank and I,” Laura said. “We were the start of this but the community has embraced this and made it bigger and better than we could have dreamed. It’s aloha at its best.”
“The Sayres took what happened to them and turned one life lost so that others may be saved.” — Lyle Tamaribuchi, fire rescue specialist
The money also comes from private businesses, such as Bank of Hawaii and Young Bros., and other nonprofits, such as the Ironman Foundation, not to mention people who survived near-fatal accidents thanks to the heroics of lifeguards and firefighters.
George Rider, a retired corporate lawyer, was in Hawaii last year for his daughter’s wedding when he broke his neck bodysurfing at Laaloa Beach, also known as Magic Sands.
Lifeguards Ryan McGuckin and Anton Finley rescued him, stabilizing his spine while bringing him in. They eventually resuscitated him using CPR and were prepared to use an automated external defibrillator that the foundation had purchased, Laura said.
After several months of rehab at Craig Hospital in Colorado, Rider can now walk, although his cervical vertebrae remain fused together, making him unable to turn his head, she said.
He donated $5,000 to the foundation, which Laura said will be used for a new PA system at Magic Sands so lifeguards can warn beachgoers of dangerous conditions. It carries their voices much farther than a megaphone.
Rider’s sister made a video describing his recovery:
The Sayres have been astonished by what the lifeguards and firefighters have needed over the years — things they had assumed the county already provided. Sunscreen, for instance, new board shorts, weatherproof coats, communication equipment and other relatively inexpensive items. But also bigger ticket items, like refurbishing a rescue boat.
“There’s all these things that they’re doing that we don’t know about until something happens,” Frank said.
When a 15-year-old boy jumped off the rocks at Hapuna Beach last year and drowned, his body was discovered four days later in a cave 60 feet underwater.
Rescue divers had to take off their scuba tanks and push them through a hole to reach him because it was so narrow, Laura said. But the real issue was how the divers had to communicate with their team on a boat at the surface: They were using the “OATH system” of tugs on a rope — one tug for OK, two tugs for advance, three tugs for take up slack and four tugs for help.
After the incident, Ironman donated $23,000 to the foundation, which used the money to buy dive masks that have communication systems so divers can talk to each other underwater and to those on the boat and on land.
Fire equipment operator David Mahon said the new system removes “a lot of the dangers” in operations like that.
The Sayres’ foundation put together this video about the diver communication system:
Fire rescue specialist Lyle Tamaribuchi, who the foundation honored in 2015, said the new equipment and training has helped immensely.
“The Sayres took what happened to them and turned one life lost so that others may be saved,” Tamaribuchi said. “These guys went 110 percent. Without them we’d be still back in the Stone Age.”
The foundation raised $20,000 last year to put a cab on the rescue boat to protect electronic equipment from the elements and install a platform so lifeguards could get back aboard without having to climb up the propellers, Laura said. The foundation had refurbished the boat previously with new motors, and provided a replacement trailer.
The total cost was $38,500, but since the foundation was able to raise more than half the money, it spurred the County Council to kick in the rest from its contingency fund, Laura said.
Hawaii Island’s unique geography adds to the cost of emergency services. The island spans 4,000 square miles with thousands of acres of wilderness, peaks that get snow in the winter and remote, alluring coastlines.
“They could have a call to rescue a snowboarder or boogie boarder and then within minutes a diver or hunter,” Laura said.
With a population of just 200,000 people, the county doesn’t have a huge tax base to generate funding. Unlike in some places on the mainland that have taxes that go specifically to emergency services, Hawaii leaves it to the discretion of the county councils and the Legislature.
The Hawaii County Fire Department’s budget this year is $33.7 million, which is similar to last year’s. The Emergency Medical Services’ budget is $13.4 million and the West Hawaii Ocean Safety budget is $555,000, said Battalion Chief Gerald Kosaki, who oversees special operations and the lifeguards.
“They were doing it with duct tape and dental floss.” — Frank Sayre
When the Sayres formed their foundation two decades ago, ocean safety was part of the parks and recreation department and receiving about $2,200 for equipment and other needs.
“They were doing it with duct tape and dental floss,” Frank said. “The guys’ swimming suits were disintegrating.”
Things have improved since ocean safety was moved under the Fire Department, but Kosaki said it remains a challenge to find the money to meet their demands.
“Although we do have a departmental budget that is allocated for the purchase of equipment and training, many times our needs far exceed this amount, as with this year’s request to refurbish the rescue boat at the Kailua Fire Station that exceeded $38,500,” he said.
Kosaki, who has been in his current position for the past seven years, has enjoyed working with the Sayres.
“They are such amazing people with hearts of gold,” he said.
Sean Gallagher, a lawyer-turned-lifeguard who retired last month, brought some of the issues to the Sayres’ attention early on. Rescue surfboards, which lifeguards may use a dozen times a day at popular beaches like Kahaluu, were losing their laminate and becoming hazardous to use.
“They get hammered by the sun and the lava they have to travel over sometimes,” he said.
Gallagher met the Sayres for the first time about possibly holding a run-swim race to raise money for new equipment. That plan fell through due to liability issues, but he said Laura told him not to worry because “the Sayre Foundation was going to be our Santa Claus.”
“That’s our community. That’s Hawaii.” — Laura Mallery-Sayre
Laura, who was working at her husband’s dental practice at the time, told some of her patients about the issue facing lifeguards. By the end of the week she said she had raised enough money for new surfboards, megaphones, binoculars and automated external defibrillators.
“That’s our community,” she said. “That’s Hawaii. I’m sure if we were to do this on the other islands it would be similar.”
The Fire Department was hesitant at first, she said, as it didn’t want to be “overreaching” or have the public know how thin it was stretched. But it soon came to support the foundation’s efforts, a partnership has evolved.
Laura has had conversations with fire chiefs and public safety advocates on other islands about expanding the foundation or setting up something similar. They’re supportive, she said, but the foundation’s success has resulted from a sustained commitment, and she just hasn’t found that private individual who’d be able to devote all the time needed to make it work.
Foundations and online fundraisers are often set up after tragic accidents in the islands, which happen frequently. Hawaii’s visitor-drowning rate is 13 times the national average and 10 times the rate of local residents. But many of those efforts fizzle out after raising a little money.
Laura, 69, and Frank, 74, have talked about hiring an executive secretary to run the foundation and possibly expand it. As of now, there are no paid employees — all of the money raised goes to the Fire Department’s needs.
“We’re barely able to get it done here,” Frank said. “It’s not what we’re trained in doing. If you need anything in dentistry or dental hygiene, we’re your guys. But this is a full-time job for Laura and I.”
The Hawaii Community Foundation took the Sayres under its wing to help get their foundation up and running.
“We were totally a charity case,” Laura said. “We were just a couple of parents who lost a kid. We had no clue what to do. We did not know how to set up a foundation.”
Ten years later, the Sayres knew enough to become independent and establish their own nonprofit.
Beyond raising money to buy equipment and pay for training in specialized rescue scenarios, the Sayres also lend their voices.
The most recent push is for lifeguards at Kua Bay at Kekaha Kai State Park. It’s currently unguarded and falls under state jurisdiction. The beach has seen a significant increase in visitors since the state improved an access road.
“People don’t know how dangerous it is,” Laura said.
What once was a quiet place almost exclusively frequented by locals who know the ocean conditions now sees a stream of rental cars carrying tourists each day. The bay is highlighted in guidebooks and online travel sites as a must-see attraction and people line up in the morning to go to what’s declared on the website TripAdvisor to be “one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.”
Brad O’Gara, a 59-year-old Washington man, apparently drowned while swimming there Jan. 12.
Firefighters were 15 minutes away. Bystanders pulled him out of the water after finding him face down. Medical personnel who were on vacation and happened to be at the beach performed CPR until the Fire Department’s first unit arrived. He was pronounced dead at Kona Hospital.
Thirty minutes earlier, a 64-year-old visitor from West Virginia was found face down in the water at Hapuna Beach. This beach also falls under state jurisdiction but the county has a contract with the state to staff it with lifeguards.
Water safety officers rescued him using full spinal precautions and performed CPR, Kosaki said. He had regained his pulse and started breathing on his own by the time an ambulance arrived from the South Kohala Fire Station. He’s alive today, but may have some neurological damage, the chief said.
State Reps. Cindy Evans and Nicole Lowen and Sen. Josh Green — all of whom represent constituents on the Big Island — have introduced bills to put a lifeguard tower at Kua Bay and staff it. The estimated cost is $321,696.
The legislation says three other people have drowned there since 2008, 10 people have suffered spinal-cord injuries and many others have been rescued by bystanders.
Laura said she testifies on the bills, but the legislation for Kua Bay has failed to pass in recent years.
In 2015, a bill to fund salaries and benefits for lifeguards at Kua Bay cleared the House but died in the Senate. Lawmakers opened their 2017 session two weeks ago and will be working on bills over the next few months.
“Frank and I started this foundation to help save lives and to make it more feasible to save lives,” Laura said. “It seems irresponsible to me for the state to spend all this money on the travel industry but not to save their lives.”
With the 20-year anniversary of the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation coming up later this year, the effort has come full circle in at least one way.
Laura said she recently received $25,000 from the Karakin Foundation that will be used in part to replace the rappelling ropes that the Sayres had paid for out of their own pocket after their son died.
For firefighter Dusty Frechette, the foundation’s work “just keeps getting better.” He said firefighters and lifeguards understand the inherent risk to their jobs but that the boost from the foundation helps them be more effective and safer. It also improves morale.
“The past is helping the future,” he said.